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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Bottleshock and A Secret Chinese Garden

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ever since I heard the Judgement of Paris1976 story, I have longed to visit Chateau Montelena. It seemed like a perfect place to visit on a special occasion, so we chose Garrett’s mom Pat’s birthday as a

s good an excuse as any to visit. Brief history land background: Chateau Montelena was originally founded by Alfred Tubbs, the SF entrepreneur, in 1882. Tubbs purchased 254 acres of land two miles north of Calistoga at the base of St. Helena - the perfect location to grow vines with its well drained, stony soil. By 1896, Tubbs had built a Chateau, hired a French-born winemaker and named his winery Chateau Montelena - a contraction of Mount St. Helena.

Though Chateau Montelena became Napa’s seventh biggest winery, Prohibition brought its winemaking to a halt. In 1958, Yort and Jeanie Frank purchased the Chateau as an ideal spot to retire and excavated a beautiful lake surrounded by Chinese Gardens to pay homage to Frank’s homeland. Chateau Montelena’s next chapter included complete replanting and renovation of the winery under the leadership of Jim Barrett, who began making wine at Chateau Montelena in 1972 and still leads the winemaking efforts today. The famous year 1976 helped put Chateau Montelena and Napa Valley on the map of the wine world. At a great gathering at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Paris, the greatest French Wine and Food Establishment specialists (aka snobs) gathered to determine the best wines of the world. Four white burgundies were tasted against six California Chards.

On the fateful day - the French Judges were arrogantly convinced that the top ranking white wines were French. When the blind taste results were revealed it was actually Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay that rated the highest of all, proving that California wineries could rival the French. When we pulled up to Chateau Montelena, it didn’t initially fit the picture I had painted in my mind - in fact, it didn’t look like much as we pulled off the road. My opinion changed rapidly as we drove up the driveway and the scenery changed rapidly to a beautiful sanctuary that I never could have envisioned. The first view you see as you approach the winery is a breathtaking Chinese Garden and fish pond, surrounded by weeping willows, and lush landscaping and Red Chinese bridges. As if in a fairytale, swans grace the pond, and there is even a basket of crusty bread at the water’s edge for visitors to feed the ducks as they stroll. There are little benches surrounding the pond, and bridges that lead to little Chinese teahouses perched above the water, complete with picnic tables.

I wanted to stay and bask in the peaceful harmony I felt looking out over Jade Lake, but also longed to taste the famous wines...so we ambled up a shady pathway, where wild strawberries and brightly colored wildflowers lined the path to the winery and tasting room. The winery looks just as I had imagined it - and probably because the image of the Chateau is imprinted on each bottle. It was still breathtaking and I truly felt like I was visiting the French countryside (although the Chinese Lake and Gardens initially threw me off). I could have sat outside the tasting room all day - with its peaceful water fountain, Coi fish pond, lush flora, and potted lemon trees, it offered the picture perfect image of tranquility and hospitality. The tasting room was definitely aimed more for the tourists that gathered there - some more pugnacious than others. Still, I enjoyed the photos and historic notes and memorabilia that lined the walls leading into the private tasting rooms and it did make me obsessed with renting the movie Bottleshock to learn more about the Judgement of 1976.
As for the wines themselves, they really truly as balanced, elegant and beautiful as I had hoped- each and every one. Below are my tasting notes:
* 2009 Riesling: Delicate and crisp, like a perfectly crisp white peach, yet warm and ripe enough to conjure up a chilled apple crisp - some toasted spice notes - honey crumble nuttiness, and lemon squeezed generously on top.
* 2008 Chardonnay: Made in the French style (naturally), this Chardonnay does not undergo malolactic fermentation, so is tastes less heavy and buttery than typical American Ch

ardonnay. A crisp, bright fruity blend of pineapple, green apple, guava, grapefruit, and lemon all combined into a beautiful symphony with a long silky finish - as delicious as a fresh fruit tart from a French bakery. No wonder it blew the French out of the water!
* 2007 Zinfandel: A delicate and perfectly balanced Zin that tasted more like Pinot, tasting of wild briarberries, soaked in sweet vanilla bean. This wine has a soft entry and is lower in alcohol and tannins than most Zins and is not overly ripe or jammy, but deliciously balnced.
* 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon: Blended with Cab Franc and Merlot, this Cab is deep and delicious. Made in the French Bordeaux style, you can taste the earthy forest floor, dark cherry, cinnamon, chocolate and tangy briar berries. A very versatile wine that is tannic enough to cellar well.
After our tasting, we were convinced to join the wine club simply to be able to gain the privilege to picnic on the premises, granted only to wine club members. Wine club members can also enjoy private tastings in the less touristy private - and beautiful- tasting rooms in the back of the winery, which I hope to try soon. We headed to Calistoga market, grabbed some fresh and local Napa picnic fare, and headed back to the Chateau for a late lunch. After purchasing a bottle of their crisp Riesling, we enjoyed a most delightful picnic in the middle of Jade Lake, which was the icing on Pat’s birthday cake - Definitely a must-visit and strongly consider bringing your picnic and joining the club.

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