Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2015, Napa Valley
Cost: $57-59
D rinking a glass of this Chateau Montelena chardonnay should give you the thrill of drinking history. And not just any bit of history, but the defining moment for California wines.
Back in 1976, when the French thought they had a stranglehold on wine quality, this New World chardonnay beat all of the best of the best. A wine shop owner had set up the Judgment of Paris to allow wines from the upstart United States to compete against the elegant wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux.
In a blind tasting the panel of French judges picked the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay above four white Burgundies and five other California chardonnays. When the scores were added up the judges were sure they had picked a French wine.
What they had done was verify that California wines were among the best in the world. Among the red wines tasted that day Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 cabernet sauvignon came out on top over four French Bordeaux wines and five other California cabs.
Of course, 42 years later we all know how good California wines are, but back then even Americans thought they had to get a French wine to prove how sophisticated they were.
If you try the Montelena chardonnay you will know what people are talking about when they describe a wine as elegant. It has a warm, pleasant taste and really opens up the taste buds. I love sipping this wine by itself, but it really soars when you pair it with food.
Cindy and Mark both loved the Chateau Montelna with the seafood.
It is a gorgeous bright yellow in the glass with inviting aromas of peach, pear and flowers. On the palate you pick up different flavors each time you drink it. I tasted green apple, melon and citrus. Aging in oak gives the wine some body and hints of vanilla and spice.
This is a rich, full wine with grip, so the flavors linger in your mouth. The long, smooth finish has a creamy pineapple taste. Aging the wine on its lees for 10 months in French oak adds to the texture and creaminess.
I love how all the elements play off each other and create a magnificent experience.
Scallops fra diavalo was a good match for the wine.
The Montelena cab is a bit pricey for an everyday wine, but when you want to impress someone special or just want to make yourself feel special, this is the wine to try. Then tell your friends about the Judgment of Paris and they will know you are making an effort.
If you want to learn more about the 1976 tasting, find a copy of the movie “Bottle Shock.” It is a fictionalized account, but it brings out the gist of the story in a fun way.
Montelena CEO Bo Barrett said they recently tasted a bottle of the 1973 chardonnay and it was still great. As for me, I’ll be happy to stick with the 2014 chardonnay. You really can’t get anything better than this.
Winery: Chateau Montelena’s history began with Alfred L. Tubbs, a San Francisco entrepreneur who had heard that Napa Valley was the best place in California to grow grapes. In 1882 he owned 254 acres of land two miles north of Calistoga in the northern end of the valley.
First he planted his vines on the rugged land that featured stony, well-drained soil. Then he built his winery and brought in a French winemaker. By 1896 the A.L. Tubbs winery was the seventh largest in Napa Valley.
Mark appreciates good food and wine.
Unlike other wineries of the day which were built of wood, Tubbs’ chateau was made of stone, with walls three to twelve feet thick providing natural insulation. He also built into a hillside, which also regulated the temperature.
The design stood out, and still does today, resembling an English Gothic castle gatehouse complete with rustic stone walls, battlement with crenels and merlons, narrow arched windows, a large arched door in the place of a portcullis and bartizans with fake arrow slits.
Originally the building was meant for barrel storage with a second-story crushing floor. In 1960, a second-floor apartment was inserted so the chateau could be used as a home. The space was then converted into the current tasting room though parts of the private residence remain and are used today for family guests and private events.
Prohibition brought an end to winemaking, but in 1933 Tubbs’ grandson, Chapin Tubbs, again started harvesting grapes. He made some wine and sold grapes to other wineries.
In 1940, Chapin renamed the winery as Chateau Montelena Winery, a contraction of Mount St. Helena, which towered over the property.
Chapin Tubbs died in 1947 and the property did not operate as a winery for nearly two decades. The family sold the property in 1958 to Yort and Jeanie Frank, who wanted a pleasant place to retire.
The Franks excavated a lake and landscaped the grounds to look like gardens in Yort’s Chinese homeland. Jade Lake still exists today and is considered one of Napa’s most beautiful spots.
In the early 1970s the vineyard was cleared and replanted under the leadership of Jim Barrett. He also brought in modern winemaking equipment and assembled a team to make top-quality wine. The first wine in decades was made in 1972, and by 1976 Chateau Montelena was known throughout the world. Jim’s son Bo now runs the family-owned winery, making many world class wines.
The tasting room is open daily and offers several tastings and tours. You can sip wine in the castle overlooking the Chinese garden and Jade Lake. From there the vineyards stretch out to the base of Mount Saint Helena.
Black sea bass with shrimp in a lemon scampi sauce.
Goes with: We drank the Chateau Montelena when we had dinner with some friends who we knew would appreciate it. A couple of times a year Mark and Cindy have informal gourmet dinners at their home.
Their food, which includes several courses and home made sorbet palate cleansers, is always incredible, so I decided I would focus on the wine for our dinner. It worked. Mark and Cindy knew about the Judgment of Paris.
Mark also built my wine cellar and was even gracious enough to let me help. He does incredible high-end work on cellars and furniture. I try to be nice to him whenever I can. He and Cindy also appreciate good food and wine.
The food wasn’t bad, and it paired well with this wine. We had two seafood courses, using fresh shrimp, scallops and sea bass we brought back from a trip to St. Simon’s Island.
The first course was pan-seared scallops served over pasta with a zesty fra diavalo sauce. The fresh scallops had a wonderful taste and the sauce had just enough spice to add some zip to the dish.
The main course was black sea bass with shrimp in a lemon scampi sauce. It was great with the wine as well. The fresh sea bass had a sweet flavor, enhanced by garlic, lemon, white wine, vegetable stock, butter and parsley. I baked the sea bass filets, then added the shrimp and sauce on top.
We added some roasted red potatoes tossed with rosemary and parsley and a crusty baguette. We feasted, and the wine made each dish better.
The Montelena chardonnay would go well with any seafood dish, roast chicken, vegetables in a cream sauce and rich, creamy cheeses.

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