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!