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Uncorked: Winemaker crafts a benchmark Chardonnay

Cameron Parry
Cameron Parry

Consistency has been a staple at Chateau Montelena.

Even in 2011, when growing conditions were so unpredictable throughout Napa Valley that some pundits wrote off the vintage, winemaker Cameron Parry marveled at the vineyard’s ability to produce spectacular fruit for the Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay.

A cooler than normal season with rain events sandwiched around harvest doesn’t sound like an ideal recipe. Yet, in the 40th Chardonnay vintage at Chateau Montelena, Parry has crafted a benchmark wine that meets all the criteria he seeks.    

Winemaker spotlight

Fruit for the Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay doesn’t come from the Calistoga estate. 

Since 1972, John Muir-Hanna vineyard has been the source of Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay. It’s on the corner of Orchard and Dry Creek roads. It produced the legendary 1973 vintage, which was scored the top white wine at the 1976 wine tasting now known as the Judgment of Paris. The event made it plausible to consumers that California winemakers could produce world-class wines. 

“It’s really an amazing place,” said Parry about Muir-Hanna, which is nestled against the western hills with vineyards closer to the bay. The maritime influence produces cooler days in Oak Knoll than Calistoga, and a fog layer that rolls in keeps nights slightly warmer. The fog burns off by 9 or 10 a.m. having done its job of letting the grapes shed some of their acidity. 

“There’s been a great consistency. It’s been in every bottling ever of Chateau Montelena and will be in every future one, too.”  

While red wines took a hit in places throughout Napa Valley, Parry said it was an ideal vintage for Chardonnay. With crisp flavor and pure fruit with expressive oak and no malolactic fermentation, he has embraced the “beautiful, natural acidity” of the wine. 

“We’ve made Chardonnay for 40 years,” Parry said. “I believe 2011 is the style that best expresses our interpretation. It’s a pleasant coincidence.”

“2011 received a lot of negative attention. There was rain at harvest and a cool growing season. But you can’t paint the whole valley with one brush,” he said. “There are site-specific variations that take place.”

What to buy

Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($50): Because the fruit was able to shed some acidity with the cooler growing season, Parry has a wine lower in sugar and it shows with clean, crisp flavors. Granny Smith apple, pears, pineapple and a bouquet of citrus notes reside on a frame with a supple, almost creamy texture. A touch of oak on a nutty finish conclude what Parry terms a “magnificent food wine.”

Wine 101

Parry was able to visit a pumpkin patch this fall. This is a rarity for a winemaker, whose job is bound by the vagaries of Mother Nature. But, 2013 was a dry spring and early bud break. Rainfall was almost nonexistent in January, February and March. The result was a harvest done and all pressed by the end of October. 

After Parry labeled 2012 a “Goldilocks season” because of its ideal conditions, there was some anxiety over what 2013 would portend. It took focus in the vineyard to select the right lots, but Parry was pleased with the final outcome. 

• 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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