This season we’re going back to our roots in California’s wine country, where the first Williams-Sonoma store was opened. Along the way we’ll be spotlighting the local chefs, artisans and producers who have made the region a top culinary destination and continue to inspire us, in the kitchen and around the table.
Bo Barrett’s father Jim restored the dilapidated vineyards and empty stone chateau at Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena in the 1970s. From there, it went on to produce one of the first American wines to best a French wine in a tasting competition — the basis for the 2008 film Bottle Shock. Here, we ask Bo, the master winemaker, all about his favorite wines, the famous Judgment of Paris, and the best ways to serve wines at home.
Tell us the story of your family starting Chateau Montelena. Why did your father decide to open a winery?
My father had been an attorney for 30 years, and, as he said, his “job was making people miserable and he was good at it.” He decided to do something to make people happy instead, and he just kind of fell into wine — we had no family history of wine. My paternal grandparents were Irish immigrants and my maternal grandparents were wheat farmers in Eastern Montana. Nevertheless, he fell in love with Napa Valley during the early days of its renaissance and he decided to try something different.
What varietals do you grow/produce and what is unique about them? How would you describe them?
Since Chateau Montelena’s rebirth in 1972, we’ve grown the typical California big four: Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel for our reds, and Chardonnay and Riesling for our whites. We still make those four wines today, over 40 years later.
When we started in 1972, my father’s dream was make classic European-styled wines with California flavors — at that time, “New World” wines really had not been invented. So, we set out to capture all the California light and combine it with classic European styling, which is how I would describe our wines: classically-styled with bright California sunlit-grown flavors. That makes our wines unique today because, as we see many years later, there is a lot of hype about the big, overpowering New World wines.
Which wine do you go to most often?
That’s a toss-up. It really depends on what we are doing and when. For example, when the sun’s shining, I never drink red wine — I wait until the sun goes down below the yardarm. So during the day when it’s hot out, we usually drink Riesling. Then, maybe we’ll have Chardonnay when we are getting ready for an early dinner. But typically, in the evenings, our Montelena Estate Zinfandel is our “go-to” wine. If you’re going to have that one glass a day, it has a nice lightness and is very rewarding.
Chateau Montelena has a rich history, having famously triumphed in the “Judgment of Paris” wine competition of 1976. Can you tell us about that? Any specific anecdotes or memories?
Starting around 1966 through 1968, there was a revolution in the Napa Valley, and that’s when you really started to see quality wines being made here again. But you have to remember in the ‘70s that the center of American winemaking was in Modesto. So, what happened in the ’76 Paris Tasting was that these wines from ’70 or so onward that were coming out of the renaissance of Napa Valley were recognized internationally.
In California, people knew we were making very good wines in Napa Valley and we had a very strong market and sales on the West Coast, especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco. For quality and luxury wines, however, the rest of the country consumed all European wines and we were having a little trouble making inroads. But the rumors were there, and Napa Valley wines were doing pretty well; so, when the British wine merchant Steven Spurrier decided to host a special tasting of top French and American wines for the American Bicentennial, he made a Tour de California to choose the American wines.
It was really just a promotional event, but much to everyone’s surprise, Chateau Montelena’s ’73 Chardonnay won the white wine category and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet won the red wine category – even after they had already picked a California wine for the white category. It was very revolutionary and a catalytic moment because suddenly all of the quality wines being made in California gained their deserved recognition and our world changed overnight. Finally, people outside of California were screaming for our wines and that event really put an important nail in the coffin of prohibition.
A funny anecdote, which is told pretty well in the movie Bottle Shock, was that the ’73 Chardonnay actually had a post-bottling instability called pinking. It was transitory, but the wine did turn a strange copper color and we almost sold it all as shiners to the contemporary of Trader Joe’s at the time.
The winery and vineyards are situated on beautiful grounds – tell us about the area and what you do there.
Jade Lake and our Chinese gardens were built in the early 1960s, before the winery reopened. Before my family owned the property, a Chinese gentleman, Yort Frank, and his wife, Jeanie, purchased it as their retirement home. As the story goes, Mr. Frank wanted a moat for his castle, so he started excavating around the Chateau. Longing for his ancestral home, he decided to build Jade Lake instead, emulating the Summer Palace in Beijing. After I traveled to Beijing, I saw what he was trying to accomplish, which inspired our recent renovation of the Chinese pavilions to make them look more authentic. Then, as we’re situated at the very northern end of Napa Valley, we are surrounded by mountain terrain and the vineyards go right up to the slopes of Mount Saint Helena — I think that’s where we really get the beauty. It is a unique blend of the rugged volcanic landscape of the area with these lush vineyards below. It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. It’s a magic place.
As for what I do…well, basically what we do is just live with the land, work our vineyards, and try to make great wines from this magic place. I do everything from filling out government paperwork to planting and developing vineyards – it’s a very full-time job and keeps us very busy.
At the end of the day. We typically work 10-12 hour days and sit down in the evening with a glass of Riesling by the pool in the summer or a glass of Zinfandel by the fire in the winter. It is all seasonal, but I always enjoy wine with friends and family.
With food, again, it is very seasonal. We have always lived farm to table here at Chateau Montelena and in Napa Valley in general. We have our gardens and we either raise our animals or go hunting — we go salmon fishing in salmon season, duck hunting in duck season, and we also raise organic grass-fed beef here. Food pairings aren’t particularly revolutionary for the most part: salmon with Chardonnay, barbecue with Zinfandel, and duck or lamb with Cabernet. We’re farmers and we go with what foods are in season.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
It depends on the season, but typically I start the day loading up my dogs — they like to be rancher dogs — and then I drive around to several of the properties to look at the vineyards. In the wintertime, I’m checking the ditches; in the summertime, during growing season, I’m checking the irrigation in the irrigated fields, checking how the vines are, and seeing what the vineyard crews are doing. Then, I usually drift over to the winery for a couple of hours in the afternoon to make sure things are in order. As both a winemaker a winegrower, I have all of the farming work and all of the winery work; additionally, I have the responsibilities of running a business since this is a family winery. I definitely keep busy.
How does wine fit into the larger experience of dining and entertaining in wine country?
Wine is a pretty big part of what we do around here; every time you see somebody eating something, there’s usually a glass of wine there. I think of wine as just a part of a normal, happy, healthy lifestyle. I’d like to say it is super special, but the fact is that wine is commonplace and it’s part of the way we live – if you’re having dinner, you have a glass of wine. Lunch is a little different, though, because we work really hard and I think people would actually be surprised by how rarely we drink wine during lunch. We have to go back to work, and for those of us working in the industry, especially on the production and agricultural side, you might have to drive a tractor later in the day, so you don’t want to drink too much Chardonnay at lunch and plow over a few vines!
Any tips for people serving wine at home?
Don’t save your best bottles for some vague time in the future. Serve the good stuff; don’t screw around! A bus could hit you tomorrow or a meteor could come down and bonk you on the head, so serve your good bottles once in a while.
Also, neither Heidi nor I are big decanter people. We like to see everything in the bottle, because when you pour the wine from the bottle, it immediately picks up a lot from the air and loses some of the very ephemeral aromas just through the act of decanting. Oftentimes it is better to just let the wine sit for a little while with the cork out, especially with a big red. If it needs air, just swirl your glass more. We really prefer to watch the wines develop in the glass and if you pour it into a decanter, you’re going to miss a little bit of something.
What do you love about living and working in the wine country?
I have a job where I get to work outside. That’s what I love. I work outside a lot. I’m a fresh air person, and I really like that. Additionally, what I find so immensely rewarding is that our job is to make people happy, and that is a very gratifying occupation.