Chateau Montelena's rich history began on a chilly fall morning when Alfred L. Tubbs spaded over and inspected the soil where he thought of planting estate vineyards. He had heard the Napa Valley was the best place to grow grapes in California. A deal was struck, and in January of 1882 the San Francisco entrepreneur owned 254 acres of rugged land just two miles north of Calistoga at the base of Mount Saint Helena. The soils are well drained, stony, and loose—perfect for the vines he would plant.
It took less than a decade to turn his dream into reality. First Tubbs planted his vineyards, then he built his Chateau, and in 1886 he imported a French-born winemaker. By 1896 his winery, christened Chateau Montelena (a contracted form of Mount Saint Helena), was the seventh largest in the Napa Valley. Winemaking at the Chateau came to an end with Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed, the Tubbs family continued to harvest the vineyard, making some wines and selling grapes to other wineries and home winemakers.
The Tubbs family sold the winery in 1958, at which time the Chateau and its overgrown grounds passed into the hands of Yort and Jeanie Frank, who were looking for a peaceful spot to retire. The Chateau inspired Frank to excavate a lake, with landscaping to reflect the Chinese gardens of his homeland. Today, Jade Lake is considered one of Napa Valley's most beautiful sanctuaries, home to a variety of fish and wildlife, and surrounded by weeping willows and native fauna.
The next chapter began with the renaissance of Chateau Montelena Winery and the Estate vineyard. Under the leadership of Jim Barrett, the vineyard was cleared and replanted, and the Chateau outfitted with modern winemaking equipment. He assembled a team to oversee the vineyard and winemaking, then grew and contracted for the highest-quality grapes in the Napa Valley. In 1972 wines were made for the first time. Decades later, this celebrated family-owned winery continues to thrive with Jim's son Bo Barrett at the helm.
Jim Barrett came to the Napa Valley in 1972 with one thing in mind, to start a world-class winery. He doesn’t mind telling visitors, “I wanted to do something to make people happy.” After being discharged from the Navy at the end of World War II, Jim returned to school to complete his education. Five years later he had earned a Law Degree from Loyola University in Southern California. It wasn't long before he had a thriving legal practice, and was Senior Partner of his firm for over 20 years.
Being an incurable romantic, he discovered the empty stone chateau and the dilapidated vineyards at the northern end of Napa Valley, and decided that Chateau Montelena was the perfect place to realize his dreams. Jim restored most of the original vineyards and completely refurbished the winery, completing the "rebirth" of the winery. The first few years he still lived and worked in Southern California, so he "commuted" to the winery on a regular basis in his own airplane, until he was finally being able to make the move to Napa Valley.
Bo’s career in the wine industry began in the summer of 1972, right after he graduated from high school, when his family purchased Chateau Montelena. He spent the first summer pulling star thistle in the old vineyard and picking up rocks in preparation for replanting.
As 1981 drew to a close, Chateau Montelena's Winemaker left to pursue other opportunities and Bo was offered the job by his father, the winery's. "When I told my dad I would think about it, I was concerned about what it would do to our relationship. I thought about it for two days and finally told him that I would need to have the freedom and professional respect he had shown the previous winemakers. He agreed, and that's the way it's been ever since."
Since 1972, Bo has been involved in every vintage at Chateau Montelena. His intimate knowledge of the Estate vineyard, gained over more than 30 years, provides him with a wealth of experience that allows him, year after year, to "bring the vintage and the vineyard to your table in a wine that is elegant, balanced, and enjoyable."
Cameron Parry has been an integral member of the winemaking team at Chateau Montelena since 2004, and was named winemaker in 2008. As such, he is responsible for management of all winemaking, cellar activity, and laboratory protocol – under the direction of Master Winemaker Bo Barrett.
Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Cam moved to the Napa Valley in 1998 and worked in several wineries before enrolling in UC Davis to begin his studies toward a Masters degree in Food Science, with a focus in Enology, which he completed in 2002.
The Estate vineyard is comprised of varied terrain, from flat to steep hillsides. The vineyard gently slopes downward towards its base, where a small patch of sedimentary soil was deposited by the settling of an ancient ocean or lake. Extending out from the Napa River is the alluvial soil, the most prevalent type on the property. In the back and outside areas of the vineyard are volcanic soils, formed by ancient lava flows caused by tectonic uplifting.
There are hundreds of decisions that go into making a bottle of wine and it all begins in the vineyard, with the land. One of the most basic and essential ingredients in growing a great grape is starting with healthy soils. Mother Nature has determined the makeup of all the soil types found on our Estate vineyard, but it is the responsibility of the vineyard team to ensure that these soils are healthy and balanced. Instead of chemical products, we use only sustainable, organic farming methods to promote the health of the soil and ultimately preserve the land's productivity. For example, instead of using chemical pesticides, we combat destructive pests by growing cover crops and releasing ladybugs into the vineyard.
While our vineyards are naturally low-yielding because of their rocky soil types, we help to keep the vine yield low by dry farming as well as thinning our crops each year. Smaller yields produce more intense, concentrated, and complex wines. To ensure even ripening of the grapes, we carefully monitor the canopy, removing leaves several times each growing season. For the same reason, the vines in each vineyard block are trellised specifically for optimum exposure to the sun and to promote air circulation. At harvest time all of our grapes are hand-picked by our experienced vineyard crew, picking the grapes at night to capture the natural flavors we prefer in our wine.
The wines produced by Chateau Montelena are handcrafted in our cellar by our dedicated winemaking team. The wines express the fruit from which they are made and the vintage in which they are grown, with all other elements in balance to complement the fruit. To achieve this goal, we use modern crushing, de-stemming and pressing equipment to process the grapes as gently as possible. We then use temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks to allow the wines to ferment slowly and evenly. Once fermentation is complete, the wines are transferred to small, French oak barrels to begin the aging process. We use a combination of new barrels along with older, neutral barrels to ensure that the natural flavors of the grapes are not masked by oak. After blending and bottling, the wines receive enough aging time prior to release so that they can be enjoyed right away or laid down to mature for years to come.
In 1976 Chateau Montelena helped put California at the forefront of the wine world. That year a who's-who of the French wine and food establishment gathered for a grand tasting at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Paris. Four white Burgundies were tasted against six California Chardonnays. When the scores were tallied, the French Judges were convinced that the top-ranking white wine was one of their own. In fact, it was Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay, rated above all other wines, proveing that Chateau Montelena could produce some of the world's finest wines, and that California's wine industry had come of age.
In the summer of 2007, Hollywood descended on wine country. Randall Miller's movie Bottle Shock, filmed at Chateau Montelena Winery and other locations around Napa and Sonoma counties, tells this true story of a formerly little-known winery and its remarkable triumph over the French.