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Chateau Montelena: Wine and Time


It's tempting to write about Chateau Montelena just for the pretty pictures. It's one of the most gorgeous wineries in Napa, centered around an actual chateau from the 1880s, nestled into the foothills of Mount Saint Helena (hence the winery's name). In the 1950s then-owners Yort and Jeanie Frank refurbished the property and added Jade Lake, complete with pagoda-ed islands (on which you can picnic if you're a club member). If you ever wondered what it might be like if you stapled the pages of an atlas so Japan, France, and northern California all became contiguous, you can get your answer visiting the winery.

And it's tempting to write about Chateau Montelena just for the moving pictures. It's the inspiration for Bottle Shock, the 2008 movie where Chris Pine as Bo Barrett boldly went and won the Judgment of Paris, where American wines were picked at a 1976 blind tasting. The Montelena 1973 Chardonnay took top honors for whites, helping put Napa on the world map. (By the way, no big surprise, the film fudges history, downplaying then-winemaker Mike Grgich's role.) You can even reserve a "Beyond Paris and Hollywood: Untold Stories and Chateau Montelena Chardonnay" tour.

But, finally, it's a winery, so it's most tempting to drink. While they still make a chardonnay, ironically one that Antonio Galloni, when still with The Wine Advocate, called "a very Chablis-like Napa Valley chardonnay," they've become even more famous for making one of the most age-worthy cabernet sauvignons in California. (There's also a more approachable in price zinfandel and at the winery a petite sirah, even -- they manage to make things big without toppling over into mere fruit or alcohol bombs.)

Recently I had the pleasure of enjoying a bottle of 1991 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the first expensive bottle of wine I ever bought, perhaps almost $40 back in 1995 (that seemed like a fortune at the time), and I had stored it ever since, assuming there would be a right time, a right steak (come to think of it, I was a pescatarian when I bought it). I would not want to begin to count the bottles of wine I've purchased/consumed since then, as the Montelena bided its time. Perhaps it felt it was waiting for me, too.


It was a relief bringing the bottle to a restaurant for corkage, as I didn't have to do the opening honors and face the fear of the cork crumbling or the cork lifting and emitting a damp cardboard tinge that might mean taint. The cork itself pulled clean, and was well-reddened, so it seems I stored the bottle relatively well. Not a whiff of TCA (cork taint), either. (Montelena had a cellar issue with TCA that led to a big overhaul of operations in 2002.) And now the cab sat, an open question, drinking air from a century different than the last it had breathed.

In the glass the wine's color held carmine even to its edges -- not a bit of brown even for its age. The nose was muted, although that kept changing with the night: some red berry, some leather. The taste, of all things, dignified, although again as it opened more and more it let its wild side out, more bramble in that berry. And it left my mouth better than when it began, teaching my tongue how to taste, making my medium rare Kansas City New York bone-in beef in a drizzle of Béarnaise beautiful. The bottle just kept opening, a night of possibility, growing fuller, deeper, more delicious. As if I needed another lesson in how the best things in life are worth a wait.

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