Review: Chateau Montelena, 1996

Having proven the worth of American wines to the world, Chateau Montelena is one the most notable names in the western hemisphere. This Napa Valley red boasts a complex mélange of cassis, berries, leather, earth, and oak


Red wine, Napa Valley, California, USA


A complex mélange of cassis, berries, leather, earth, and oak. A little sweetness with jam, soft, ripe tannins and lots of extract. Quite concentrated.


96 points


Meat fondue, venison, steak.


Since the seventies, Americans had been boasting about California wines. Nobody believed them, least of all the French. Steven Spurrier, owner of the Cave de la Madeleine wine shop, in Paris, and the Academie du Vin, a wine school whose six-week courses are attended by the French Restaurant Association's chefs and sommeliers, decided to organize a taste off.

It was to be a blind tasting of four white Burgundies against six California Pinot Chardonnays and four Grands Crus Chateaux reds from Bordeaux against six California Cabernet Sauvignons. One day in June 1975, nine French judges, drawn from an oenophile's Who's Who, swirled, sniffed, sipped and spat. Finally they declared – Best wine - Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' '72 from the Napa Valley, followed by Mouton-Rothschild '70, Haut-Brion '70 and Montrose '70. The four winning whites were, in order, Chateau Montelena '73 from Napa, French Meursault-Charmes '73 and two other Californians, Chalone '74 from Monterey County and Napa's Spring Mountain '73.

Naturally, if Montelena white wine was amongst the best white wines in the world, her red wines were unquestionable.

But how did Chateau Montelena begin?

San Francisco entrepreneur Alfred L. Tubbs had heard the Napa Valley was the best place to grow grapes in California. A deal was struck and in 1882, Mr Tubbs owned 254 acres of rugged land two miles north of Calistoga. First Tubbs planted his vineyards, then he built his Chateau, and in 1886 he brought in a French-born winemaker. By 1896 his winery, christened Chateau Montelena became known as the seventh largest in the Napa Valley. Then came Prohibition and winemaking ended.

After prohibition was repealed, the Tubbs family continued to make wines but eventually sold the winery in 1958. Yort and Jeanie Frank the new owners landscaped the grounds and were more interested in the Chateau as a peaceful spot to retire rather than to make wines. It was later under the leadership of James Barrett, when the vineyard was cleared and replanted. The winery was also outfitted with modern equipment. In 1972 wines were made for the first time and four years later, in 1976, the Chardonnay was one of the wines selected for the blind tasting in Paris.

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