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Category Archives: Winemakers Updates

Once upon a time in a cellar in a hill….

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Back in the 1880′s under the direction of Alfred Tubbs, the building known as Chateau Montelena was constructed.  Facing almost due north and dug into the hillside, the Chateau was well suited to its mission as a barrel aging cellar with a naturally cool inside temperature (thanks to being partially underground).    At the time of the passage of the 18th amendment, Chateau Montelena was one of the largest wine producers in California.   Following the repeal of prohibition (the 21st amendment), the winery was re-started and the cellar re-invigorated, however, this was not to last and the winery slowly fell into disrepair, passing out of the Tubbs family and ultimately being re-discovered in 1970 by a young Irish attorney from southern California named Jim Barrett.   Jim fell in love with this beautiful old structure and set about restoring it to its former glory and purpose.   So began the construction of the second cellar in the history of the Chateau.  Using the technology available at the time, the lower floor of the Chateau was turned back into a fermentation and barrel aging cellar.  This cellar performed admirably for 39 vintages, producing an unbroken series of world class wines with very few changes to the physical plant.   In order to continue to improve on the legendary quality of the wines, starting in 2008 the wine-making team decided to make a philosophical shift in how the wines were being made – instead of picking enough grapes to fill the tanks to capacity we would pick only those grapes at their optimal ripeness, no matter what the quantity.   The result being many more small lots which was quite a challenge to accommodate in the existing cellar.

So it was that we began working on a complete redesign of the wine production cellar in 2008.   Over the last 3 years the design of the new cellar evolved thanks to hours of brainstorming and plenty of time with a glue-stick, cutouts of tanks,  and photocopies of the old cellar plan.    The engineers and architects were brought on-board, the details resolved, forensic structural investigations conducted, and finally a contractor hired.  During this time the project expanded to include structural enhancement and seismic reinforcing – Tubbs really did it right in the 1880′s and the Chateau  withstood all the various shakes and shimmies over the last 125 years, but we wanted to make sure that it will last for at least another 125 to come.

At the beginning of the second week of February 2011, construction (or rather demolition) began on the 6,600 square foot interior.   At night.    In fact almost all the work involved was carried out in the early morning hours before the tasting room opened and the tourists arrived.   Considering the scale and complexity of this project – removal of the tanks, complete demolition of  the existing slab, new post footings, addition of structural steel reinforcement, new slab, all new electrical, all new plumbing, all new tank cooling, all new lighting, all new trench drains, and more – for the project to be completed in 7 months (at night) is remarkable.   Yesterday we received our final inspection and the project was signed off with absolutely no comments from the county inspector, a rarity in itself, marking the formal completion of the third iteration of the cellar in this historic building – the physical component of the philosophical shift mentioned above.

In addition to the physical and philosophical changes involved with this project, there is another equally important facet: Chateau Montelena will now be recognized as a National Historic Place by the the U.S. Department of the Interior for its contribution to the history of wine making in California both during Tubb’s time and during the current (Barrett) era.

Below is a collage of images from before, during, and after the project showing (clockwise from upper left) an artist’s rendition of the new cellar, the new cellar prior to the installation of the tanks, some of the new fermentation tanks, the cellar during demolition, and the former cellar full of barrels.   Please also have a look at this 360° panoramic tour of the new cellar.  But what is better than any of these images is first hand experience, so come on out and visit our new old Chateau in the hill!


Good Ideas; Bad Decisions

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Up here at Chateau Montelena, we like to think that we know a good idea when we see one, even if it sometimes takes us awhile to get on board. So, in what is proudly a blatant rip-off of the Schramsberg “Harvest Dress”, we present to you the “Harvest Hat!” A real gem that I found in Chinatown and just couldn’t pass up – who doesn’t love a fuzzy white pig? The rules are the same as for the dress – wearer must have done something to deserve it. In this instance one of our interns (Matt Johnson), in a case of bad judgment, failed to hang the “man in press” sign on the outside of the press while cleaning it, so now he gets to wear the hat as a reminder to himself and the rest of the staff to follow the rules for their own safety. Goes nicely with his outfit, don’t you think?

On the more serious side, today was our 3rd day of fruit this year, and we’ve got just shy of 60 tons in so far. All white grapes to this point (Chardonnay and Sauv Blanc), but we’re looking at potentially harvesting the first few tons of Estate Cabernet Sauvignon tomorrow. Today’s hot weather is moving everything along quite nicely, and should help push several blocks into pickable condition. Rain next week? That’s the next big question…

Stay tuned and happy harvesting!

First Crush, 40th Vintage

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Crush for our 40th vintage started today.  The first bin of Chardonnay from the John Muir Hanna vineyard arrived and we wasted no time getting a video of sorting table activity for your enjoyment.  This is always an exciting time here, more so this year with our newly retrofit cellar.  Enjoy.

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The Grapes are Near!

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Finally!  We’re at 22 brix; now we need just a bit more!  The heat is on and things are looking good.  The challenge for our production team, however, is that it looks like everything will be coming in at the same time.  Normally we get our white grapes first, then the reds and lastly the Riesling (I know, it’s white, but it ripens late because it’s coastal).  This year is the perfect storm.  Do we have room for all the grapes? Not to worry; you won’t see any blush wine coming out as we lump them all together.  Our renovated high-tech cellar and experienced vineyard and production teams are in full preparation to handle all the influx of grapes.  Will it be easy? No way – it’ll be very long days and nights in the weeks ahead, but we can take homage that the end result is always worth it.

We are bracing ourselves for the impending storm….

The grapes are nearly here!

Cellar Reconstruction Progress

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An earlier post by Nyk mentioned the complete reconstruction of our cellar, only its third incarnation since the winery’s 1882 beginnings. It’s a project symbolic of our continuing commitment to world-class winemaking.  Beautiful new catwalks and a recently completed floor give the 6,600 square foot interior a sleek appearance.  There are a lot of additional finishes to complete before the fermentation tanks are installed, and everything is on schedule. We thought you might like to see how things are coming along.

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Three Generations of Montelena Winemakers

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We had a special guest here yesterday.  Jerry Luper stopped by to say hello after many years of living in Europe, and just about 30 years after turning Chateau Montelena Winemaker responsibilities over to Bo Barrett, now our Master Winemaker.  So it was fun to get them together with current Winemaker Cameron Parry for a group photo.  What strikes me, other than the idea of the shared history represented here, are the smiles on their faces.  It’s fun here at the old Chateau…and it’s the people who make it so.

Summer Arrives at Chateau Montelena

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We have a new face on the blog! Lynn Pedone will be working in the vineyard, with Dave Vella and his crew, as she pursues her studies in Viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. A little background on Lynn: she’s a recent East Coast transplant, has lived all over the world growing up in a military family and has previously worked in the world of business and finance. She’s now hoping to settle into her “last career stop until retirement” in the wine industry and is looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about vineyard maintenance with Dave.  Lynn will be writing a weekly blog post about her experiences working in the Chateau Montelena vineyards.  Read her latest post below:

Tuesday was officially the first day of Summer, and in the vineyard here it was appropriately HOT…97 degrees.  It seemed fitting that we spent the morning tending to the irrigation needs of the vines.  Irrigation involves more than simply keeping the plants alive.  In viticulture, the strategies for watering depend on the desired style of wine that will ultimately be achieved – there are different effects of irrigation on berries from budbreak to bloom and fruit set and all the way through to maturity. One of my favorite lessons from vineyard management class is that vines are like cats – they don’t like wet feet!  At Chateau Montelena, they practice deficit irrigation, providing just enough water to keep the vines from becoming overly stressed.  Heriberto, (Beto, as he is called by the staff here) who I spent the day shadowing, explained that when the vines are young they are irrigated more to grow a strong healthy vine and as they get older and start to produce fruit, the water is greatly reduced.  I always think of what Jim Barrett, i.e. Bill Pullman, said in the movie Bottle Shock – making the vines “struggle” intensifies the flavor.  Who would know better?  And this is where I put in a shameless plug for the movie…if you have never seen, go get yourself a copy and share it with friends.  You don’t have to be a wine lover to appreciate this wonderfully entertaining, feel-good movie.  If you are lucky enough to live in the area, you can pick up a copy (autographed by Bo Barrett) in the Montelena tasting room if you take the “Bottle Shock Chardonnay Experience” tour.  As with the movie, once is not enough!

Returning to the day’s events, I accompanied Beto as he turned on valves for several irrigation pump stations throughout the vineyard blocks.  Just when I thought to myself, oh, this will be an easy task….there is actually much more to irrigation and fertilization (fertigation when both are applied simultaneously) than I imagined.  As I said to Beto, learning about something in a classroom is never the same as doing it.  Beto has been with Montelena for more than 20 years, and it’s easy to see that he loves what he does.  We began in a hillside block, walking the rows to inspect the drip lines and replacing any failing, or plugged, emitters (the small, round cap-like spouts through which the water flows).  Next, travel to the various pump stations where, in some cases, valves need to be turned on.  At other stations, filters need to be removed and cleaned out.  Valves are shut off at the end of the work day, then the whole process repeats again the next day.  I also observed as organic fish fertilizer was applied through the irrigation system to one of the blocks of baby vines (this is done once or twice a year on young vines).  The huge 300-gallon tank has to be transported to the application site with a forklift, and then a myriad of hoses connects the tank to the irrigation system with a portable pump.  Quite a remarkable way to apply fertilizer, considering how painstaking it must have been in the days before all this wonderful machinery was developed!


So, How Is 2011 Shaping Up?

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Vineyard Manager, Dave Vella, has over 25 years of experience working with the soils, vines and weather here at the winery.  With that kind of experience working with one particular vineyard, he has seen it all over the years.  I recently caught up with him to get an update on how things are shaping up in the vineyard for the 2011 vintage.

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The 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay

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It’s official…the 2009 Chardonnay is released and ready to enjoy!

Have you had a chance to try it yet?  If so, what do you think?


May 24: Judgement Day

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No, not referring to “The Rapture,” nor am I referring to The Governator’s Hollywood glory days; I’m talking about the famous day in Paris, 35 years ago today, when a few “kids from the sticks” beat the French at their own game.  A tasting set up by Steven Spurrier, in Paris at the Intercontinental Hotel,  made history when George Taber, a journalist for Time Magazine, documented this tasting.  A group of judges, all French, and in esteemed professions in the food and wine industry, blindly picked the 1973 Chardonnay over the pack, including some top flight white Burgundies.

Not saying the French don’t make good wines. On the contrary, they are truly world class.  What I am saying, and what this tasting showed, was that they’re not the only ones anymore!

Join me in a toast tonight, as we honor an important milestone in American history, with a glass of Chardonnay; and make it California…

Jim Barrett and George Taber – 35 Years Later at Montelena’s Movable Feast
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About Our Authors

George Blanckensee

An expert event planner and an avid basketball and sports fan, George can tell you about all the best off-the-beaten path eateries.

Kali Clark

A Napa Valley native, Kali returned to the area after a stint on the East Coast and can be found documenting the latest happenings at the Chateau. When not behind the camera, she likes to experiment in the kitchen, travel, and enjoy the outdoors

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