Monday, May 30, 2011

Celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Judgment of Paris

The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, known today as the Judgment of Paris, was a wine competition to celebrate the American Bicentennial that was organized on May 24, 1976 by Steven Spurrier, an Englishman running a wine shop and wine school in Paris. In this competition six top California cabernets and chardonnays were blind tasted against four Bordeaux wines and four white Burgundies to act as markers against which to evaluate the Californians. The judges were among the best tasters in France, and, to everyone's surprise, they chose a California wine over the French for both the red and white flights. The highest scoring white in the competition was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the highest scoring red wine was the 1973 Stags’ Leap Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then there have been several repetitions of the competition and each time California has continued to prove itself to be at the top of the class.

In celebration of this historic event (as well as my brother’s 48th birthday), my brother Adam and I ventured out on Saturday May 28, 2011 to the Napa Valley to pay a visit to these two historical wineries. I had been to both of these wineries before, the first time was in the Spring of 2000, but had not written about them for California Wine Tasting Adventures (CWTA).

Chateau Montelena

Being a holiday weekend in the USA (Memorial Day), we headed out early and made our first stop at Chateau Montelena in Calistoga.

Chateau Montelena was built in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs who purchased 254 acres of rugged land just two miles north of Calistoga at the base of Mount Saint Helena. Tubbs had made a fortune from the rope business during the Gold Rush, and knew the area from visits to the White Sulphur Springs Resort nearby. He planted vines, and by 1896 Chateau Montelena was the seventh largest winery in the Napa Valley.

Sadly, the winery and land then ceased to produce wine due to the Prohibition. During this time Tubbs sold grapes but did not make wine and in 1958 the Tubbs family sold the Chateau to Yort Wing Frank, a Chinese electrical engineer, and his wife Jeanie, who were looking for a retirement home. The Franks created a garden in the style of their homeland, and excavated Jade Lake. Today the Chinese garden is an absolutely gorgeous place for picnics with “islands” reserved for members of the Chateau wine club. On the far side of the lake are the vineyards sprawled out at the foot of Mount St. Helena.

Chateau Montelena’s renaissance began in 1969 when the winery and vineyard land were purchased by attorney Jim Barrett who put together a bunch of investors to purchase the property. Barrett restored the chateau, replanted the vineyards, installed new winemaking equipment, hired wine maker Mike Grgich (founder of Grgich Hills Winery in Oakville) and brought in a cellar crew to make the first wines in 1972.

It has been reported on the internet that in 2008 the owners of Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena Winery sold their respected 40,000-case operation to a revered second-growth Bordeaux wine estate, Chateau Cos d’Estournel. However, I have been informed from the winery that "Clos d'Estournel did not purchase the property; the Barret family continues to own and operate the winery." (for more information see: )

While the move Bottle Shock is entertaining and displays the beauty of the Napa and Sonoma wine countries,  it is loosely “based on a  true story.” For a more accurate depiction of the people involved and the how the event took place I high recommend reading George Tabor’s book The Judgment of Paris.

Today, Chateau Montelena is producing some of the world’s finest wines and without a doubt they are charging a hefty price for them. While in the movie the winery owners laughed at Steven Spurrier’s wanting to pay for tasting, today Chateau Montelena offers one tasting flight for a fee of $20 (which is waved with a purchase of $100 or more) and the wines are extremely expensive.

Our first wine was the 2010 Potter Valley Riesling ($25) from Potter Valley, an unincorporated community in Mendocino County located 18 miles northeast of Ukiah, California. This wine displays a classic Riesling profile, extremely aromatic on the nose with tropical fruit, canned peras, dried apricots, melon, kiwi fruit, a slight “nuttiness” and a slight “band-aid” note. On the palate the wine is luscious, rich, with ripe fruit yet it remains dry and crisp with great acidity with an extremely a long finish that last for over a minute. This was probably one of the best Rieslings  have ever had from California.

Our second wine was the 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($50). Aged sur lee (in contact with spent yeast cells) with no malolactic fermentation this wine displays the characteristics of a Burgundian style Chardonnay. A dry wine with an austere mineral and steely character followed by complex layers of crisp golden delicious apples, fresh pears, herbs, dried spices and flowers.

Our third wine and first red was the Estate 2008 Montelena Estate Zinfanel ($30). This is NOT your typical California high alcohol jammy fruit bomb Zinfandel. It is a medium bodied wine, ruby red in color, almost a dark rosé, which you can clearly see through  in the glass. The aroma is predominately of cranberries, fresh watermelon, strawberry with a hint of rhubarb.

Our fourth wine was the 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($49). This is a classic Napa valley Cab (though it includes 8% Merlot)! Deep garnet in color, black currant, blackberry and anise on the nose followed by cassis, black cherries, roasted herbs, bay leaf, silky tannins with a very long finish.

Our final wine was the Napa Valley’s Cab’s big brother – the 2007 Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($135; K&L Wines sells it for only $104.99). This wine is deep ruby-red. Deep aromas of of blackberry, blueberry, violet and and attractive earthiness. Velvety on entry, followed by a whalloping gallup of power. It is extremely youthful with layers of black currants, black berry berry and anise. Finishes with refined tannins and and lingering finish.

To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

After a break for lunch at Buster’s Southern Barbeque in Calistoga (AWESOME Tri-Tp sandwiches at a GREAT PRICE) we headed down the Silverado Trail to Stag’s Leap Cellars.

The winery was founded by Warren Winiarski who had worked for, and learned from, various wineries including Robert Mondavi. In 1970 he bought a 50-acre orchard which he transformed into the Stag’s Leap (SLV) Vineyard. Later in 1986 he acquired Nathan Fay’s vineyard, maintaining the name FAY in his honor.

In what is now referred to as the historic “Paris Tasting,” the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon took top honors among the reds, triumphing over two first-growth and other renowned wines of Bordeaux. The surprise win along, with Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay, was covered by TIME magazine and picked up by media around the world.

In 2007 Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Washington state and Marchese Piero Antinori of Italy bought Stags Leap including the SLV and FAY Vineyards.  But Warren Winiarski and his family retained the Arcadia Vineyard and continues to provide grapes to the Antinori-Ste Michelle partnership.

Stag’s Leap Cellars offer’s two tasting flights. The first is The Napa Valley Tasting ($15) which consists of the 2008 Savignon Blanc, the 2008 KARIA Chardonnay, the 2006 Merlot and the 2007 Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon. When given the choice, I always for the better of the flights so I chose the second, The Estate Collection Tasting ($30), which consists of the following:

Our first wine was the 2008 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay ($50). A classic well balanced Chardonay without the faux paus of your typical overly oaked buttery California Chards, this is a full-bodied wine that gracefully interweaves fruit, spice and minerality with layers of ripe pear, honey dew melon, ginger and just a touch of nuttiness. 

Our second wine and first red was the 2007 Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($95; K and L Wines sells it for only $65.99). This full-bodied wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from their 67-acre estate vineyard. It is deep garnet in color and is followed by very alluring aromas of rose petals, sweet red plums, anise. On the palate there are seductive layers of cassis, black cherries and cola, medium-bodied and elegant with a silky  texture, soft tannins and a long finish.

Our third wine and second red was the 2007 Stag’s Leap Vineyard (SLV) Cabernet Sauvignon ($125; K&L Wines sells it for only $79.99!). This is a radically different wine than the FAY Vineyard. Where the FAY is a floral seductive wine, the SLV is a more earthy, dense and manly wine. On the nose and palate there are interwoven layers of blackberry, black plum, cassis, bramble, , caramel, vanilla and spice. The tannins are silky and the wine has a very memorable lingering finish. 

The 2007 CASK 23 Cabernet Sauvignon was sold out, so we then tatsed the 2005 CASK 23 Cabernet Sauvignon which sells for the same price ($195; K&L Wines sells it for only $109.99!). The 2007 CASK 23 Cab is their flagship wine as it combines the best of the FAY and SLV to provide a wine that has both elegance and full of character, with both floral and earthy aromas and a perfect balance between fruit, tannin, minerality and acidity. On the nose offers I picked up notes notes of dark chocolate, blackberry, coffee and sage. On the palate also picked up notes of fig, plum and anise. It is is full-bodied wine with round and supple, yet bold tannins, excellent backbone and structure.

Chateau Montelena Vs. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

All of the wines we tasted Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Cellars were world class deserving of high praise as they made the day a truly memorable experience. But, as noted the tasting room price can often be WAY above the market at fine retailers. So if you have a smart phone I suggest checking to see if the wines are available at fine wine dealers and compare prices before purchasing from the tasting room. But, some of the wines we tasted are small production and are not available outside the tasting room.

It would be interesting to do a blind taste comparison between these two great wineries, to see which Chardonnay I preferred and which Cabernet I thought was best. But, as I went through Stag’s Leap Cellars’ wines I was making mental notes, comparing the two and (no surprise here) I found that I marginally preferred the comparably priced Chateau Montelena Chardonnay over Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Chardonnay but I preferred Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars’ FAY and SLV Cabernets over Montelena’s Cabs.

For more information and to visit Chateau Montelena check out their web site at:

For more information and to visit Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars check out their web site at:

 Brothers.... Adam and Erik Wait

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