Tasting wine and history at Napa’s storied Chateau Montelena
There’s a sweet smell that tickles my nostrils. It’s heady, with notes of fruit dancing in the background. Some would say it’s even a little yeasty. Others will probably squeeze the tips of their noses with their fingers and walk away. Me? I can’t get enough of it. I close my eyes and take in as much of it as I can, this strange alchemy of sour and sweet, mingled with fresh — I mean, truly brand-new, clean — air. Standing here, I finally understand what writer Frances Mayes meant when she said the air even “smelled purple.”
It’s harvest season here in Napa Valley, arguably one of the best wine-making regions in the world. The grapes are at the peak of their ripeness, and this time of year, vineyard growers and workers all over California Wine Country rise early in the morning to pluck the fruit and transport it, avoiding the afternoon heat which would speed up the fermentation process. Now, the first stages of the winemaking process can begin.
At Chateau Montelena, where we’ve come for a morning tasting, the crush is well underway. White containers, stacked on top of one another, are brimming with freshly picked, plump, juicy grape clusters. I’ve never seen this many grapes in my life. And although I know a thing or two about winemaking, I’ve also never witnessed the crushing process in real life. Luckily, Chateau Montelena has a “crush viewing area” set up for visitors.
Since we’ve got some time before our tasting, Anton and I decide to lean in and learn. Against the soundscape of machinery, we watch the grapes fall through the grate of a giant destalking machine. The harvest is then rolled onto a conveyor, and by some technical magic, the grape pearls are then separated from their stalks. It’s really fascinating to watch the winery crew shuffle about and tend to the constant feed of fruit, their boots covered in purple slosh (yes, it’s not entirely a neat process).
In the midst of all this crushing excitement, I feel my attention stretch like bubblegum, wavering between monitoring the destemming and soaking in the castle itself — because my, oh my, is it absolutely beautiful. Draped in warm, afternoon light and shrouded with cascading ivy, the stone-built castle feels like a landmark that would take your breath away on an excursion to France. Not that we’re comparing this California institution to France, but if we were — it would win.
And it did, back in 1976, during the now infamous Judgement of Paris — a wine competition that pitted the two region’s best vinos against each other. Some would say Chateau Montelena’s triumph put Napa on the viticulture map and elevated its status to what it is now. Of course, this kind of event doesn’t leave you. It becomes embedded in your identity as a business, as an icon and as an institution.
We’re here because of this reputation, which led many of our armchair traveler friends to put this winery on our can’t-miss list. That, of course, and the fact that — and I don’t mean to judge a book by its cover — it’s just a gorgeous place to be. As you might know, I’m a sucker for architectural marvels, especially ones that tout a rich history and especially when there’s wine involved in some format. Speaking of, it’s time to head in.
“White wine is meant to be consumed like a piece of fruit — the sooner you get it, the better,” That’s sage advice from Rico, our host this morning. We’re sidled up by a stand-up bar inside the chateau, where we’re treated to five of the winery’s current release vinos, starting with a Sauvignon Blanc. Look for notes like melon and ripe peach. Maybe even melon. Rico guides us through the tasting notes. There’s acidity, he says, and it pairs well with oysters.
There’s a certain air of haughtiness that comes from describing wine by hurling a handful of pretentious words at your tasting companion, especially when you’re not an expert. Somms who know what they’re talking about can get away with it, but me? I’m no expert. I’m wary of that, and I’m trying to avoid it. But, as Anton had mentioned to me, we’re here to learn, right? Today, we’re students, and as teachers often say in the classroom, there are no wrong answers. So, we let our noses do a little exploring, and we try to suss out the notes Rico describes.
Anton, who’s a whiskey enthusiast with a trained nose that can pick up subtle, barely-there ghosts of flavors, is better at this than I am. We all examine the liquid, its color and thickness, with some curiosity. Then, almost ritually, we collectively dip the tip of our noses in the glass and take a whiff. Pause, then another whiff. It smells fruity and faintly sweet, just like Rico mentioned. I can trace peaches and pear. When everyone else thinks it’s time, we bring the glass to our lips and take a sip. It’s soft and delicate. I try for a moment to identify the sensations I feel, what this reminds me of, what memory it stirs. Then, I recognize it: it’s like the turn of winter into spring. That same fresh excitement.
As with all wine tastings, we work our way from lightest to boldest. By the time we get to the Zinfandel, I can already feel the effects of the alcohol. (I have to preface this by saying: I made the mistake of skipping lunch.) Everyone at the bar is, in fact, loosening up. You can tell because we’re starting to talk to each other. We hit it off with one couple in particular, a husband and wife from Romania, bonding over what life was like during the Soviet Union and how to grill the perfect slab of rib-eye, among other things. We feel like old friends.
Rico is a wonderful conversationalist, too. Not only does he know the wines, their character, the terroir and the history of this iconic institution like the back of his hand, he’s also passionate about it. And there’s no one I love talking to more than someone who’s truly invested. Ask him anything. He’ll likely know.
This — the conversations with familiar strangers, the wine, the education of it — is what traveling is all about. After we’ve sipped, talked and laughed, I walk around the tasting room as Anton pays for the bottles we’ve decided to go home with. I peruse the posters that detail Chateau Montelena history from when Alfred Tubbs purchased the farm in 1882 and built the Old-World chateau on the land to 2016, when the winery celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Judgement of Paris on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.
The winery’s 173 Chardonnay, which won the Judgement of Paris in 1976, is on display in a glass case. Off to the right, there’s a handwritten financial ledger, open to show wine sales during May and June of 1976 right around the time of the competition. So much pride in history. I wondered, before I came here, if the place would live up to the eloquence it’s reputed to. And it did — undoubtedly, resoundingly, incomparably.