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Uncorked: Napa winer mixes tradition, sustainabilty

Tradition casts long shadows at Chateau Montelena.

“There’s days I roll up to the winery and pinch myself,” said winemaker Cameron Parry, who expects to begin harvest at his Napa Valley winery next week because of a slightly drier than usual spring which prompted an early bud break.

“There’s so much tradition here. The winery has only had four winemakers in 42 years, so I know I’ve got big shoes to fill. But it’s a pleasure to be able to work with really amazing fruit. It’s a privilege and an honor to work here,” he said.

Winemaker spotlight 

With near reverent tones, Cameron Parry detailed the dependability of Chateau Montelena vineyards. Three different soils – alluvial, sedimentary and volcanic – build complexity into the wines. The solar exposure and slope provide ideal conditions for Parry to “shepherd the wine through the process.”

“A hallmark of this property is the vineyard’s amazing ability to ripen,” Parry said. “Because of where we are situated, we’ve got the right solar exposure, slope and soil. We ripen earlier even in what are traditionally late-ripening seasons. Even in a tricky year, we see full maturity.”

When Chateau Montelena modernized its cellar in 2011, a stout task considering the building is 126 years old, it didn’t have to change its best practice in the vineyard. Chateau Montelena was ahead of the vineyard sustainability curve.

“It’s centrally important to maintain the health of the vineyards,” Parry said. “It’s not just us going out and hugging trees. It’s important for us to operate with social equity to maintain our economic viability. 

“We want to give back to the land. That’s an important part of our philosophy. We were green before being green was popular. We pay attention to the health of the soil, have custom compost for each block of the vineyard and special cover crop, too. We recycle all that we can and are almost 100 percent solar powered.”

Chateau Montelena has classically structured wines with the presence of new world fruit. Despite its classic pedigree, Chateau Montelena remains ahead of the curve. It draws from years of experience and continues to shine.  

What to buy

Chateau Montelena, 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $50: Aged in the 25,000 square feet of caves that snake beneath Chateau Montelena and provide a constant 61 degree temperature that further reduces the winery’s ecological footprint, the Napa Valley Cabernet is beautifully structured.

Rounded out with Merlot and Cab Franc, the Napa Valley Cab is a blend from fruit purchased from two lots in the Calistoga area and the finest lots that didn’t get used in the Estate bottling. 

The oak backbone isn’t overpowering but helps hold together the currant, cedar and blackberry notes.  

“We really get a chance to offer wine with classic Old World structure and that beautiful California fruit,” Parry said. “Jim Barret wanted to make a California Grand Cru.”

Wine 101

“Bottle Shock” is a 2009 film that stars Alan Rickman as Steve Spurrier, a British wine merchant in France, and Bill Pullman as Chateau Montelena winemaker Jim Barrett. The trials and tribulations of each are detailed – Spurrier as a struggling merchant and Barrett as the lead protagonist of Napa Valley winemakers struggling to find their niche in the industry and acceptance by the masses. 

Hollywood took dramatic liberties with several accounts in the film, yet it remains an entertaining examination of the winemakers that pioneered Napa Valley and their eventual triumph in Spurrier’s 1976 blind wine tasting between U.S. and French wines. 

An even more thorough look at the fledgling winemakers is given in the brilliant nonfiction book “Judgement of Paris,” by George M. Taber. In 1976, Taber was a correspondent for Time magazine and the only media present at the blind tasting. Written in 2006, the book is a detailed look at the wine industry on both sides of the Atlantic.   

Rent “Bottle Shock” and enjoy it with a good steak and a bottle of Chateau Montelena on a Friday night. Add the book to your summer reading list before time runs out on the season.

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at

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