Reminded by October’s devastating wildfires that growing grapes is a gamble and nature holds the ace card, winemakers in California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys are leaving nothing to chance. About a dozen wineries suffered major damage as 5,000 Calistoga residents were evacuated from their homes. The Tubbs Fire, which began just north of Calistoga and spread across more than 36,000 acres of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, spared the historic town but left sobering memories.
“The events … have been life-changing and unforgettable for our entire region,” said winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett. “But we are still here, and more grateful than ever to live in such a beautiful place, with such a strong community, and work in such an amazing industry.”
During a winter visit to Calistoga, hosted by the Calistoga Winegrowers Association and the chamber of commerce, we met many local winemakers, who had nothing but praise for firefighters.
The Judgment of Paris: Chateau Montelena takes on the world
Bo Barrett looks nothing like actor Chris Pine, who portrayed him in the 2008 movie “Bottle Shock.” But I’d venture to guess that Bo knows a whole lot more about wine. He grew up in the business.
In case you missed it, “Bottle Shock” tells the story of California winemakers’ efforts, in the 1960s and ‘70s, to convince the world their wines were equal to European vintages. Their efforts climaxed in 1976 when, in a blind taste test in Paris, a 1973 chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1973 cabernet sauvignon from Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars were judged superior to French challengers.
“The Judgment of Paris” became a rallying point for wine lovers across America. Californians could finally crow that their wines were just as good as the Europeans’.
Calistoga, nestled between the Mayacamas and Vaca ranges at the northern edge of the Napa Valley, was at the heart of that jubilation. Chateau Montelena is just north of the town, on Tubbs Lane near the foot of Mount St. Helena. (Stags’ Leap is on the Silverado Trail, closer to Yountville.)
A little Calistoga history
Although Chateau Montelena dates from 1882, Calistoga wasn’t always known for wine. Its first claim to fame was its natural hot springs and geysers. Sam Brannan, a publisher and businessman who became wealthy during the gold rush of the late 1840s, opened a spa resort (now the Indian Springs Resort) with mud baths in 1862. According to local legend, he gave the town its name in a moment of inebriated joy: Recalling a youthful visit to Saratoga Springs in New York, he promised to “make this place the Calistoga of Sarifornia.”
An early visitor was author Robert Louis Stevenson (“Treasure Island,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”), who honeymooned at the hot springs with his wife, Fanny, in 1880. For three summer months, they squatted in an abandoned cabin near the Silverado Mine on Mount St. Helena, now the site of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.
Cellar rat to CEO of Chateau Montelena
Bo was a 22-year-old “cellar rat” when the Judgment of Paris was announced in 1976. Today he’s the head winemaker and chief executive officer of Chateau Montelena. He still sports a soul patch and an irreverent sense of humor that hint at the rabblerousing longhair depicted by Pine in “Bottle Shock.”
“When I was young and a genius, I could fix anything,” he reminisced over a glass of 2014 cabernet sauvignon at the castle-like, 19th-century stone manor that Chateau Montelena calls home.
“My dad (Jim Barrett, played in the movie by Bill Pullman) was an attorney,” Bo said. “He didn’t know anything about agriculture or winemaking. He just found great people to do it for him. When he quit law (and bought the winery in 1972), everything was paid for by somebody pulling a cork on one of our bottles of wine.”
Perhaps most important of those people was Miljenko (Mike) Grgich, a Croatian who revived the chateau wine program and soon was making the chardonnay that won over the world. Today Grgich, soon to be 95, still produces world-class chardonnay and other vintages as co-owner of the Grgich Hills Estate near Rutherford, further down the Napa Valley.
The first wine produced at Chateau Montelena was a riesling. That was in the 1880s, when Alfred Tubbs invested his savings from a San Francisco rope and chandlery business in a 322-acre estate and planted 10,000 French and German vine cuttings. The first crush was in 1886, by which time he already had formed the Napa Valley Wine Company with Charles Krug and other industry pioneers.
Winemaking at the Chateau stopped with Prohibition in 1920. It wasn’t revived until Jim Barrett bought the estate, replanted the vineyards and brought in Grgich. Today the winery produces cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay (of course!) and, with a nod to the past, riesling — along with smaller quantities of merlot, petit sirah, cabernet franc, malbec and ruby port.
“Making riesling is like walking down the street in a Speedo,” Bo quipped. “You’re not hiding anything. With chardonnay, at least, you’re wearing a wetsuit.”
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How smoke taints wine
The Cabernet sauvignon grape, Bo said, “is nothing but a skin stretched over a seed.”
Montelena has 114 acres planted in cab. Bo is grateful the 2017 harvest came early, in September. Had the grapes been left on the vine into October, the 2017 vintage might have been severely compromised. “Smoke hooks into the glycosides,” he explained.
When wood burns, it releases phenol compounds that react with sugar (glycosides) in the grapevines. During fermentation, the glycosides can release a smoky, campfire-like aroma known as “smoke taint.” Even if a vineyard did not burn, its grapes can still be affected by heavy smoke in the atmosphere.
The University of California at Davis oenology department has estimated that 10 percent of Napa-Sonoma cabernets will suffer smoke taint from the fires, resulting in losses of $106 million for 2017 Napa vintages and $69 million for Sonoma.
“We are pretty much a poster child for sustainably made wine,” he said. “For example, instead of using chemical pesticides, we grow cover crops and release ladybugs into the vineyard. France uses a lot more chemicals.”
Rocky, alluvial soil naturally limits vineyard productivity, but Montelena assures a low yield by dry farming and thinning its vines each year. “We only get about four tons of grapes per acre,” Bo said. “But the cabernet grapes are intensive, concentrated and very black. They don’t need long maceration.”
Chateau Montelena’s 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($61) is a perfect example. Barrel-aged for 16 months, it is a blend of 91% cab sauv, 8% merlot and 1% cab franc. I got fresh raspberries and vanilla on the nose, black pepper with fine tannins on the palate, subtle acidity on the finish. Wine Spectator gave the 2014 vintage 92 points, and I see no reason why this vintage — released only in January — should not earn a higher rating.
The winery’s delicious 2015 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($58), aged 10 months in French oak, offers pineapple and melon on the nose, orange zest and ginger on the palate. A toasty barrel character balances with creaminess from sur lees aging, setting the stage for a finish of baked apple and vanilla.
Both can be ordered directly from Chateau Montelena.
First Lady of Wine
Many longtime Calistogans consider Bo’s wife of 30 years more famous than he is.
Heidi Peterson Barrett grew up in the wine industry. Some of her earliest memories were of her father, Richard Peterson, working as a winemaker for E & J Gallo in Modesto, in California’s Central Valley. In the 1970s, Richard moved the family to the Napa Valley, where he made wine for Beaulieu Vineyards.
Heidi graduated from UC-Davis in 1980, interned in Germany and Australia, then became head winemaker for Buehler Vineyards in 1983. Five years later, she struck out on her own as a consultant. Her first client, Napa’s Dalla Valle Vineyards, was accorded two 100-point scores from Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker.
By 1992, she was a winemaking rock star. Parker took to calling her “The First Lady of Wine.” Napa Valley wineries Screaming Eagle, Paradigm Winery, Grace Family Vineyards, Amuse Bouche, Lamborn Family Vineyards, Showket Vineyards, Revana Wine, Fantesca Estate and Winery, Diamond Creek Vineyards, Niebaum-Coppola (now Inglenook) and Kenzo Estate all benefited from her expertise.
When she’s not making wine, Heidi is a devoted scuba diver and an accomplished artist whose paintings hang in local living rooms and galleries. Those pastimes have inspired the name for her own label, La Sirena, which means “The Mermaid” in Spanish and Italian. Since 1994, Heidi has been producing cabernet sauvignon, grenache, malbec, a dry muscat and a pair of proprietary blends.
I was lucky to pillage a jug of 2014 Pirate TreasuRed ($65), a blend of seven varietals dominated by cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Smaller percentages of grenache, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and petit sirah are thrown into the mix, which is offered in a flagon shaped like a rum bottle. Dark and toasty, with hints of caramel and cherry, it’s worth a hearty “Yo-ho-ho!”
La Sirena made its first rosé in 2016. The winery followed with its 2017 La Sirena Rosato ($28), made from primitive (Italian zinfandel) grapes in Amador County, in the Sierra foothills. I would save this for spring sipping: Salmon pink in color, yet bone dry to the palate, it carries flavors of cranberry and strawberry that will match perfectly with a cheese plate.
Both can be ordered directly from La Sirena.
To come: The Geology of Calistoga Wines