Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chateau Montelena Winery Revisited

Chateau Montelena Winery is one of Napa Valley's iconic wineries, and made headlines back in 1976 when nine French judges scored the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay as the best Chardonnay over some very famous white Burgundy and other Chardonnay wines. I bought a case of their famous 1973 Chardonnay back then, and it really was a wonderful wine. Chateau Montelena continues to produce some excellent wines and makes an outstanding, consistently excellent Estate (Reserve) Cabernet Sauvignon. The historic winery building itself is very lovely, and the grounds, a relaxing setting with a Chinese garden, pond, pagodas and bridges, are especially beautiful. Chateau Montelena is one of those handful of historical Napa Valley wineries that everyone should visit at least once.  Don't forget your camera.

Chateau Montelena winery buliding

Chateau Montelena began back in 1882 when Alfred Tubbs, after making his fortune in selling rope to miners during the gold rush, purchased 254 acres two miles north of Calistoga at the base of Mount Saint Helena.  He planted a vineyard in the loose, rocky soil and  hired a French architect to build the chateau. In 1986, he brought over a French winemaker.  When he named his winery Chateau Montelena in 1896 it was the seventh largest winery in Napa Valley.  Winemaking was interrupted in 1920 when Prohibition came but returned after it was repealed. The Tubbs Family eventually sold the winery in 1958 to Yort Wing Frank, a Chinese electrical engineer, and his wife, Jeanie, who wanted a retirement home for themselves.  The Franks created the large Chinese garden and excavated a lake which they called Jade Lake, adding small islands, bright red bridges and pagodas.  In the pagodas there are picnics table and chairs set up for an intimate wine tasting for wine club members.  In 1972 James Barrett and his family purchased the winery.  Their 1973 Chardonnay won first place for in the famous 1976 Paris tasting, and a bottle of it can now be found in the Smithsonian Museum.  You can read about this historic event in George Tabor's book, Judgment of Paris, or on the Internet.  The movie Bottle Shock is a loosely historical (somewhat fictionalized) account of the event. Bo Barrett, Jim's son, has been the winemaker since 1982.

Chateau Montelena Jade Lake

Chateau Montelena continues to produce their Chardonnay but is now also famous for their Cabernet Sauvignon with their Estate being consistently excellent every vintage.  They also produce a Zinfandel and a dry Riesling.  They are open to the public 9:30 AM to 4 PM without an appointment, although closed on certain holidays.  The current basic tasting fee (which includes a pour of their $150 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon) is $20, but other special tasting options are available by appointment.  At the time of our current visit they will waive one tasting fee for every $100 purchase.  Please see their web page for current tasting options and prices: Visiting and Tasting Service over the years has always been good, and we extend much thanks this time to our host, Nick, who is also their Chef.

Chateau Montelena tasting bar

Our tasting began with the Chateau Montelena 2012 Riesling from Potter Valley in Mendocino County.  It sells for $25.  It was a pale gold in color with mostly melon and white peach on the nose.  Although it has 0.5% residual sugar, which makes it quite dry, it had a pleasantly round and smooth entry with some sweetness.   I got more white peach with some apple and pear on the palate, with good balance.  I did not get the lively acid that I get with some Rieslings, nor much minerality.  Finish was medium length.  This is a style of Riesling that should be especially appealing to many people, and the price is very reasonable. 

Chateau Montelena Jade Lake

The Chateau Montelena 2012 Sauvignon Blanc at $28 was next.  It was a light straw in color with mostly lemon on the nose with some floral notes.  On the palate I got lemon, grapefruit, lime and some tropical fruits in a style that was well balanced but emphasized fresh fruit.  It was pleasant and very accessible.  If you find some Sauvignon Blancs to be too dry, austere or acidic, you might really like this one.  It was more California in style than French.  Nice.

Chateau Montelena private tasting table

There have been some years when I have liked the Chateau Montelena regular release Cabernet almost as much as their Estate, but that was not the case this time.  This Chateau Montelena 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $53 and is quite good and reasonably priced.  It is 91.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot and 0.5% Cabernet Franc.  It was aged for 14 months in French and "Eastern European" oak with 27% of this being new oak.  It was deep red in color, and I got mostly red cherry with floral notes on the nose.  On the palate I got mostly red fruits, cherry, some raspberry and a touch of toast.  It was well balanced, smooth and very drinkable, with good acid, soft tannins and a medium length finish.  This is a Cab that you will probably not want to cellar but can enjoy immediately.  Very easy to drink.

Chateau Montelena garden

I've been visiting Chateau Montelena for many years and don't recall ever tasting one of their Cabernet Estate releases that I didn't love.  At this visit we tasted the Chateau Montelena Estate 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon which sells for $150.  It is 98.75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1.25% Cabernet Franc and was aged for 22 months in French oak with 29% of this new oak.  It was deep red and purple in color with mostly black fruit, rather than red fruit, on the nose.  On the palate I got mostly black cherry with some blackberry and black currant with some baking spices and good, lively acid.  Tannins were well integrated.  Finish was medium plus to long in length with some spice.  Although this is quite drinkable now, it should cellar very nicely and continue to improve with age.  Highly recommended.

Chateau Montelena Jade Lake

Last year a fellow who worked with the San Francisco 49ers wrote to me asking if I could recommend a Napa Valley winery where he might propose to his fiancĂ©.  He wanted one that was open without an appointment, where the setting was lovely and he might find some privacy.  After discussing this with him, I ended up recommending Chateau Montelena, with its beautiful Chinese garden and pond.  Whenever we visit we like to walk around the pond and through the gardens.  It is one of those wineries to enjoy even if you don't drink wine.  It is a winery we often recommend to others.

Chateau Montelena pagoda tasting

Chateau Montelena Winery
1429 Tubbs Lane
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 942-5105(707) 942-5105
Date of this current review: April 8, 2014
Date of  last review : November 23, 2011 

Chateau Montelena Jade Lake

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Revisited

If you love great Cabernet Sauvignon, you really must visit Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. They are a famous, quintessential Napa Valley premium winery that is especially noted for their wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon. I first visited them around 1975 just before they made such a sensation in the "Paris Tasting of 1976" when their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from three year old vines scored more points than any other red wine, including some very famous first growth French Bordeauxs such as Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion.  This was a blind tasting with French wine experts, and the results caused a sensation. On the twentieth anniversary of this event in 1996, a bottle of this famous Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was placed in the Smithsonian Museum.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars building

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was founded in 1970 by Warren Winiarski of Napa who loved the wines produced by Nathan Fay and purchased an adjacent property of 44 acres that had been planted with prune trees and some grape vines.  The 1973 vintage was the first S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon produced.  In 1986, sixteen years after the purchase of the S.L.V. vineyard, Winiarski purchased the adjacent vineyard from Nathan Fay and named it FAY Vineyard in his honor.  This vineyard had been planted with Cabernet Sauvignon in 1961 and was the first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in this area which was designated as Stags Leap District in 1989. In 1990 S.L.V. was placed under a conservation easement with the Napa Count Land Trust, guaranteeing that the land will remain agricultural land in perpetuity.  This was the first arrangement of this kind in Napa Valley.  In 1996 the Arcadia Vineyard near the base of Mount George was acquired for growing Chardonnay.  In 2007 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars was sold to a partnership of Saint Michelle Wine Estates and Marchesi Antinori.  Marcos Notaro is the current winemaker.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars entry to wine cave

 During our last review in 2011 we were especially fond of the Stag's Leap 2007 FAY Cabernet Sauvignon, the Stag's Leap 2007 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon and the Stag's Leap 2007 CASK23 Cabernet Sauvignon, and I noted regarding the CASK23, " It combines the best of the FAY and SLV to provide a wine that is both elegant and full of character. This is the type of Cabernet that gives Napa Valley such a great reputation."  These are the flagship wines at Stag's Leap Winery and no wine lover should visit them without trying these three.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars garden

During our most recent visit we were provided with a tour in addition to the tasting and had the great pleasure of having Anna Carminito, the VIP Trade Coordinator, as our host.  A tour at Stag's Leap is well worth while, especially with their amazing wine caves with 34,000 square feet of tunnels that can hold 5,300 barrels of wine.  The cave entrance, called The Arcade, was designed by Javier Barba from Barcelona, and is in itself a work of art.  The center of the cave has the Round Room where a Foucault pendulum is suspended from the ceiling, demonstrating the rotation of the earth.  It is one of only about fifty Foucault pendulums in the world.  The grounds are also lovely, and they are building a new visitor center that will have amazing views and will be open later this year.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars entry to wine caves

Our tasting actually began at the tasting bar prior to the tour.  We were provided with an initial pour of the Stag's Leap 2011 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc that sells for $26.  It was made from 59% Sauvignon Musque (a clonal variant of Sauvignon Blanc) plus 41% Sauvignon Blanc. Most of the fruit came from one of their estate vineyards in Oak Knoll District but 26% was sourced from Rancho Chimiles Vineyard in Wooden Valley, the later giving it some citrus and mineral notes.  76% was aged in previously used French oak barrels and 24% in stainless steel.  It received no malolactic conversion. I got a fairly good nose of melon, pineapple and white peach.  On the palate I got mostly peach in a smooth, creamy presentation that emphasized the fruit but still had some minerality.  Balance was good, and it had a medium length finish.  This was not very French in style, not nearly as crisp and dry, but many people should find its rather fruit forward presentation to be appealing, and it is quite decent for the price.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars front patio

Our second taste came after the tour and was at a tasting table where we could sit and concentrate on the wines.  We chose to sit inside rather than outside because of the wind which would make it difficult to appreciate the aromas of the wines.  This second pour was the Stag's Leap 2012 Karia Chardonnay at $34. It is from grapes from Arcadia Vineyard in Coombsville and Danika Ranch in Oak Knoll.  85% of it was aged in oak with 20% being new oak.  The other 15% was in stainless steel.  It underwent 20% malolactic conversion. I got a good nose of pear, peach and apple with the same on the palate.  It was fairly well balanced with good acidity but a somewhat short finish.  Quite pleasant at this price, so I purchased a bottle to try later.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars tasting room entry

Third up was the Stag's Leap 2012 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay at $50.  I could only find production notes on the 2011 but assume this is 100% Chardonnay, that it saw minimal malolactic conversion and a restrained amount of new French oak.  I got a really good nose of pear and peach with some floral notes.  It was very nicely balanced with mostly white peach, apple, pear and some lemon and vanilla with good, well integrated acid.  It had a medium plus length finish, better than the Karia, but then it is also 30% more in price.  I found it very appealing, somewhat French in style, and purchased some.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars border between
FAY (left of row of trees) and S.L.V. vineyards

We moved on to the red wines next with the Stag's Leap 2010 Napa Valley Merlot at $45.  This is 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Merlot came mostly from their Danika Ranch in Oak Knoll District and the Cab came from their FAY and S.L.V. Vineyards. The wine was aged for 17 months in French oak with 26% new oak.  I got a good nose of red cherry with some spices.  On the palate it was very nicely balanced with red cherry and spice, chewy tannins and a medium length finish.  The structure was quite decent for a Merlot, probably due mostly to the additional Cab.  A very pleasant and drinkable Merlot.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars FAY Vineyard

The Stag's Leap 2011 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon at $55 was next.  It is 86%  Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Merlot and was sourced from various Napa Valley vineyards, although our host informed us that FAY and S.L.V. Vineyard Cab grapes also go into the Artemis.  It was aged for 16 months in French oak with 35% new oak.  It had a good aroma of red cherry, cranberry and spice.  On the palate I got a well balanced, medium bodied presentation of mostly red cherry, cranberry and spices with soft tannins and a medium length finish with some cranberry lingering on.  It was very drinkable now but should age nicely.  Very pleasant and accessible.  My friend really liked it and purchased some.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Vineyard
with mustard blooms

Their three signature Cabernets were next, beginning with the Stag's Leap 2010 FAY Cabernet Sauvignon at $110.  This 100% Cab saw 19 months in French oak with 89% of that being new oak.  It began with a very fragrant aroma of black cherry, black currant and savory spice.  On the palate it was full bodied and lush with red cherry, toasty oak, tobacco, vanilla, with hints of cedar and savory and a medium length finish.  A really nice Cab with a unique sense of terroir or origin; no wonder it was rated 93 points by the well known critic, Antonio Galloni.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars back patio

We were able to compare the FAY to the Stag's Leap 2010 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon that retails at $125.  This is also 100% Cabernet and was aged for 21 months in French oak with 94% new oak.  It did not have the great aroma of the FAY, but still had a good nose of blackberry, toasted oak and coffee.  On the palate it was all black fruit with much more minerality than the FAY, also with bolder tannins and more structure.  The finish was very nice and longer than the FAY.  Although quite drinkable now (for me) I'd say this is the one to lay away and the FAY is the one to drink immediately.  Antonio Galloni rated this one at 94 points, and it is a matter of personal preference whether you prefer the FAY or S.L.V. I loved both of them.  It is really interesting to taste the FAY and S.L.V. side by side because the vineyards are right next to each other, are made into 100% Cab by the same winemaker and yet they are so different.  The S.L.V. and the FAY both have their individual personalities that make them unique from other Cabs.  It is a good example of why some people, such as myself, find terroir so interesting and appealing.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars garden

Their flagship CASK 23 Cabernet was our last pour, although we still had glasses of the other Cabs for comparison.  This was the Stag's Leap 2010 CASK 23 Cabernet Sauvignon at $225.  Back in 1974 when the famous Andre Tchelistcheff was assisting them, some blocks from the S.L.V. vineyard were so exceptional that they decided to bottle them separately from the rest of the Cab.  The cask they used from Heitz Vineyard had Cask 23 marked on it, and that was the origin of the name.  Now each year they take the very best grapes from FAY Vineyard and S.L.V. Vineyard and make the CASK 23.  (But some years, such as in 2011, they make no CASK 23.)  Each lot was vinified and aged separately in small French oak barrels for 21 months, using 90% new French oak. The final blend in 2010 was 56.8% FAY and 43.2% S.L.V.  The CASK 23 is one of the most famous wines in Napa Valley, and in some years I thought it was head and shoulders better than the FAY or S.L.V.  But you can buy both a bottle of the FAY and the S.L.V. for the price of one bottle of the CASK 23, and this is one of those years I'd probably opt for the two bottles over the one.  The CASK 23 is still wonderful, of course.  Perhaps the S.L.V. and FAY are simply getting better.  This CASK 23 had a good aroma of cherry and sage, but I slightly preferred the aroma of the FAY.  On the palate I got deep, lush cherry and blackberry with sage, savory, oak, coffee, and chocolate.  It was well balanced and well structured.  Finish was medium plus, about the same as the S.L.V.  I liked the overall balance better than the FAY or S.L.V., but I think all three Cabs are different and exceptionally good.  Try them side by side and see how they taste to you.  Remember it will vary from year to year, and the same vintage also changes with time. One thing that never varies is that I find that with every vintage all three of these Cabs are always wonderful.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars tasting room in wine caves

I can't imagine any serious wine drinker visiting Napa Valley and not going to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.  The wine is simply too wonderful and the winery much too historic to be missed.  When you also consider the lovely grounds and wine caves, you have a winery that is one that every serious wine lover should visit at least once.  They are open to the public without an appointment.  At the time of this visit the tastings were $15 for the Napa Valley Collection Tasting Flight and $30 for the Estate Collection Tasting Flight.  I recommend the Estate Flight or else both flights. You should inquire about a tasting fee waiver with minimum purchase.  They are also in the Napa Neighbor Program. Please see Tours and Tastings for current information.  

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars entry sign
Note the spelling

Note: "Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars" should not be confused with "Stags’ Leap Winery" (apostrophe after the "s" rather than before it and called Winery rather than Wine Cellars) where they produce very nice Petite Sirahs.  Also note that this AVA (American Viticultural Area) is spelled "Stags Leap" District with no apostrophe.  If there is no apostrophe it is a reference to the District.  If the apostrophe is before the s, then it is the historic Cabernet place.  If the apostrophe is after the s, you will find some very good Petite Sirah and other wines. I sometimes see the District name misspelled with the addition of an apostrophe, however.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars statue
near front entry

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars
5766 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558
(707) 944-2020(707) 944-2020
Date of this review: March 11, 2014
Date of previous review: March 2, 2011

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "Hands of Time"
A small portion of the wall that has many hands
of winemakers and others who have had major
roles in the history of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars garden
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars
Foucault pendulum
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars fountain