Chateau Montelena's actual chateau was built in 1882 and once was called Tubbs Wine Cellar after its founder, Alfred Tubbs. But Montelena really didn't mean much of anything to anyone until its 1973 chardonnay won the 1976 Paris Tasting.
That put it on the map in profound ways. Montelena has ventured to stay true to itself ever since.
For 30-some years, the family-run Calistoga winery has tried to stick to its own style of winemaking, a style that hasn't always been in vogue. The company describes it as fruit, first and foremost, balanced by an underlying structure of natural acidity to provide drinkability and ageability.
The wines aren't instant blockbusters, but might get better over time. They're "classicist" wines, as master winemaker Bo Barrett likes to say, a style more popular in 1976 than 2006. But at least with some wine drinkers, that tide may be turning.
To prove his point, Barrett recently presided over a tasting of Montelena cabernet sauvignon spanning from 1984 to 2008 (the latter of which was a barrel sample) as well as 10 years worth of chardonnay (from 1979, '82, '85, '92, '94, '97, '99, 2002, '04 and '06).
"As we set this tasting up, we got to reminiscing about what the world was like when we made these wines," Barrett said. "We made the 1979 chardonnay in the second year of Jimmy Carter's presidency. Seriously, about half of our employees weren't even born yet."
Tasting through them all, Barrett recalled bewitching weather, berry sizes and vexing blocks of vineyards. He outlined how his goal for Montelena chardonnay has always been, as much as possible, to stay around 14 percent alcohol, 3.2 pH and 6-7.2 g/l acidity.
"I like the art, and all of us are superstitious," Barrett concedes, "but I believe in the science."
Hitting those numbers, in his mind, more likely results in a wine that will go well with food, adhering to his notion that "white wine (ideally) is just getting you ready for the red wine."
Barrett had a hand in making every one. His dad, Jim Barrett, a lawyer from Southern California, bought Montelena in 1972. But the early days weren't so grand, as depicted semi-autobiographically in the movie "Bottle Shock," which shows how Barrett and his then teenaged, long-haired son Bo struggled to turn Montelena and early winemakers Mike Grgich and Jerry Luper into world-class wine producers.
Along the way, that meant better farming of its own vineyards. They total more than 200 acres, the majority of them cabernet sauvignon, with smaller plantings of zinfandel, cabernet franc and merlot, largely around the winery property in northern Calistoga.
Chardonnay grapes are grown northwest of Napa, in cooler vineyards near the base of Mount Veeder as well as on sites within the Oak Knoll District. The winery prefers not to let its chardonnays go through malolactic fermentation, a process that others like to use to produce richer mouth feel, more green apple and peach in flavor than oak.
Montelena also continues to make a Riesling from Guinness McFadden's property in Potter Valley, something they've done since the beginning.
"The classics never go out of style," Barrett noted. "We learned that lesson with chardonnay. The pendulum swings, just stick to our style and not be afraid of where the mob is going. There's also a place for properly made red wines. You've got to stick to what you know best. We have a 50-year plan, not 10."