We started our day by crossing over the mountains for our first wine venture into Napa. We had visited Calistoga the previous evening to see the Old Faithful Geyser and Petrified Forest and to explore the northern Napa area. We came upon Castello di Amorosa - an immense castle hidden from St. Helena Highway. The Open sign was still displayed on the highway at 7:00 PM – so we ventured in, only to see the castle closed. Our son was excited for the chance to tour a “real” castle so the next morning we headed out early – knowing we had an appointment back in Sonoma that afternoon. After crossing the draw bridge, his and our excitement quickly faded into bewilderment when we were informed that children were not allowed on the premises. “What, you got to be kidding.” “Nope” was the reply.
So we headed almost directly across Route 128 for the best next thing: a tram ride up to Sterling Vineyards. And our greeting would be the complete opposite. Sterling Vineyards was founded in 1964, a good year, by Peter Newton who was one of the first to plant Merlot and Chardonnay in large quantities in Napa. The winery was finished 8 years later, 300 feet above ground and painted entirely white to mimic the buildings in the Greek island of Mykonos. So that workers and visited didn’t have to “climb” to the hilltop, a tram was installed – which shuttles visitors and workers continuously to the top. In the late 1970’s the winery moved from a family enterprise into the corporate realm with Coca Cola purchasing Sterling, then to Seagram a few years later and eventually to Seagram’s parent Diageo. But even with this corporate ownership – the winery still maintains a family environment.
When we arrived at the tram entrance we found that other families had gotten the hint – and that the tram was expensive: $20 per adult. That explains the $5 discounts we saw advertised in several brochures. Fortunately the long line moved quickly and our son’s excitement – particularly when informed we would have to return on the tram as well. The $20 ticket also included a tasting of 5 wines and a self guided tour of the facilities. What’s nice about the tour is that you can set your own pace – we hurried through – and Sterling had positioned stations at the beginning and end of the tour to taste wines. They start with the Cellar Club Pinot Gris and end with the Cellar Club Viognier. The last was very good – a good representative of the few Viogniers we encountered in California. The remaining three wines are poured on a veranda overlooking the picturesque Napa countryside. Immediately after we sat down a representative arrived with a juice box and coloring book for our boy. This reception may explain the couple play-groups in line ahead of us. We receive a pour of their Cellar Club Syrah. The day was already scorching so it was not a good environment to assess this red wine and the Rutherford Cabernet that followed. However, the Cellar Club Malvasia Bianca nailed it. Sterling is one of a few wineries to vinify this Italian variety and they make it off dry. It is a delicious wine, if one can be described as such – with refreshing acidity and a honey\nut flavor. If we didn’t have to move on – we would have kicked back with a bottle. Instead we had to move on to our next visit in order to stay on schedule.
A Sterling Vineyard tram operator had recommended that before leaving the Calistoga area we needed to visit the Chateau Montelena Winery in order to view the Chinese inspired gardens. Perfect for a Kung Fu Panda obsessed youth. The winery was already on our list to visit since it was recorded as one of America’s top 40 wineries in the Paul Lukacs book "The Great Wines of America: The Top Forty Vintners, Vineyards, and Vintages" and produced one of the wines that won best overall wine at the famed 1976 Paris Wine Competition. The one that gave Napa wines an international reputation and forever raised the price of California wine. We decided we had a short amount of time to spare so we raced ahead.
From the driveway, there did not appear to be anything impressive about the Chateau. The tasting room entrance looked like a one story building with the only semblance of a Chinese garden being a small Koi pond at the entrance. Looks are deceiving. We ventured around back to see that the section viewed from the front was actually the top of the structure, with the rest hidden below a slope. Quite an impressive building. A little further along the gardens exposed themselves with ornamental bridges and an array of water life: swans, ducks, turtles, and even a crayfish. The winery even stocks bread for visitors to feed the water fowl. Half our team stayed behind to feed the animals while the remaining ventured inside.
Chateau Montelena was founded in the late 1880’s when Alfred L. Tubbs purchased land he thought suitable for vineyards at the base of Mount Saint Helena. Over the next decade he tended the grapes, built the chateau, and hired a French winemaker and opened in 1896, operating as a truncated form of the neighboring mountain: Chateau Montelena. By Prohibition the winery was one of Napa’s largest producers, but production ceased entirely as the Temperates gained power. The Tubbs family continued to tend the vines and sold the grapes to home winemakers and other wineries with the repeal of Prohibition – but eventually sold the estate to Yort and Jeanie Frank. The Franks excavated Jade Lake as part of creating a remote retirement sanctuary. Eventually James Barrett led a team that cleared and replanted the overgrown vineyard and in 1972 wine production resumed at Chateau Montelena. Four years later the winery was a member of the contingent of California wineries to send wine for a grand tasting at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Paris. Six California Chardonnays competed against 4 white Burgundies in a blind tasting by French officials. You can read here how these officials rated the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay above all the other wines. The strength of the winery is also displayed in the fact that it was their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, not the Chardonnay that Lukacs featured in his book.
The tasting room was already crowded early on this Thursday afternoon – with many visitors travelling from San Jose to start their day at the Chateau. The winery’s history and achievements are on display so venture down the hall to receive a more complete history of the operation. Fortunately for our time allotment, the winery was pouring only a handful of wines and we opened with the famed Napa Valley Chardonnay. The wine is made without malolactic fermentation since there is no need to soften the wine. It is more fruity than earthy with a lemon-honey feel. This was an instant favorite. The winery recommends aging for a more mineral feel – it you have the patience. We like the wine as is. The other white was the Potter Valley Riesling and this was a good representative of the variety. In fact, it may have been the only Riesling we tasted on the trip so it was nice to find one of our favorite varietal wines. It had the characteristic Riesling flavor with a refreshing acidic finish. Perfect for a hot day like today. He first red we tasted was the Estate Zinfandel, a medium – full bodied wine full of black fruit. This wine was actually earthy and with low tannins – extremely smooth. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was more full-bodied with black cherry flavors and actually less spicy than the already smooth Zinfandel. This is another wine that they recommend aging. The last wine was the famed Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a dense wine – almost like chewing plums or black cherries. The finish is a smidgen spicy with low tannins for such a big wine. At this price, $125, we don’t often find the opportunity to sample this caliber of wine – but it is truly one of the best cabs we’ve tasted. No wonder the consistent 93-94 ratings.
Chateau Montelena Winery is a must visit for any visitor to northern Napa. The wines are truly outstanding and allocate enough time to explore the Chinese gardens. Thanks again to Castello di Amorosa for not allowing children; otherwise we may have missed this gem.
See the Compass Tours section at Wine-Compass.com for pictures.