Bottle Rocket: Tasting Chateau Montelena wines with Montelena’s owner, Bo Barrett

By Michael Hiller ( Special Contributor)

“Having a winery is more than eating foie gras, filling out government forms and drinking wine all day,” Chateau Montelena owner Bo Barrett told me over lunch.

We were tasting through Chateau Montelena’s recent releases. Well, I was tasting. Barrett was talking.

“Montelena’s just an overgrown family farm, and I’m just the son who took over the business,” said Barrett, while sipping the 2010 Ch. Montelena Chardonnay, a soft, supple, easy-drinking wine with medium minerality and acidity, plus the lime and green apple notes you’d expect.

“Even after we beat the French at the famous Paris tasting (the subject of the somewhat fictionalized 2008 film, “Bottle Shock,” where Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay beat its French competitors in a celebrated blind tasting that established Californa’s winemaking bona fides), we didn’t change much,” said Barrett. “Our goal has always been to make great European style wines from California fruit.”

Bo was 26 years old at the time of the Paris tasting, but he remembers events slightly differently than the filmmakers portrayed them. Oddly, he thought the 1976 tasting, which elevated California wines to worldly status, wasn’t worth a movie.

“The movie guys came to me and said, ‘We’re gonna make a movie about the 1976 Paris tasting,’ and I said, ‘You’re gonna make a seven-minute movie?’ ”

Barrett says Montelena remains committed to producing small lots of high-quality wines, even on the lower end. “We believe in packing as much quality and value in our bottles as possible,” Barrett said. For example, Barrett calls the Montelena 2009 Zinfandel “the winery’s best deal.”

“At home, we drink tons of this stuff. It’s difficult to get all the ripeness of the grapes without making a high alcohol wine,” Barrett says, since there will always be overripe, sugar-laden grapes on the clusters at harvest time. “We’re not trying to make a ‘zinarone,’” referring to Amarone’s use of raisiny grapes, which produces a concentrated, high alcohol wine.

Montelena’s 2008 “Estate” Cabernet is the big gun of the winery, a rich Cab with dark red fruit, medium acidity and soft tannins, an oddity for such a young wine made from low yielding vines. “It’s fruit-driven with a lot of vineyard flavor behind it,” is how Barrett describes it. (Barrett says the ’08 yield was low from a combination of an early bud set and a late frost.) All of the Estate fruit is grown on fewer than 100 acres, which limits production.

“One of the other differences between other wineries and us is that our regular Cab is not made with a deselected set of grapes that wasn’t good enough for our Estate bottle. It’s a totally different, purpose-built wine that is meant to drink now–and it’s the only wine we make in a New World style.”

The 2009 Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t massive. It doesn’t say, “cellar me.” It’s a drink-now Cab with structure, body, easy-drinking fruit–at a third of the price of the big Estate Cab.

“We call it the Estate’s little brother–and we sell it at a reasonable price,” said Barrett.

“Drink all you want,” Barrett said, pouring a bit more in a glass. “We make a fresh batch every year.”