February 21-27, 2007

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Wine Tasting Room of the Week

Chateau Montelena

By James Knight

Two years ago, a previous Swirl 'n' Spit writer devoted this column to a rant against indifferent and rude staff she had encountered at some tasting rooms. "I found myself wanting to flee in horror," she wrote. What better place, I thought, to reacquaint myself with Napa Valley than at Chateau Montelena, one of the listed offenders. A Sonoma partisan, I weave warily through the idling limousines, the crowds jostling to suckle at the teat of the Napa experience. Wine clichés refuse to die amidst a storm of their own realities.

In the 1880s, a San Francisco entrepreneur with a branding sense ahead of his time built a chateau named for Mount St. Helena, and imported a French winemaker. This Gallic obsession foreshadowed the winery's triumph at the 1976 "Judgment of Paris" tasting where French judges, quelle horreur, found that they had awarded top honors to a California contender, 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Surely such a grande dame, casting a long shadow from the top of Napa Valley, might hold her place on the previously penned list of shame.

Totally wrong on that count. At Chateau Montelena, we had a great time with our affable host, who was alternately deeply informative and corny ("California Burgundy," he quipped to another group, "is an oxymoron. No oxen were involved, but more than a few morons.") The real irregularities, he confided, are more likely to be the fault of boorish weekenders glued to their mobile phones.

The generous pours were worth the $15 fee, which was waived anyway after we purchased Montelena's unusual first offering, the 2005 Potter Valley Riesling ($20). Labeled off-dry, only sweet enough to bring its delicate pear flavor into focus, it's a minerally, well-structured German-style Riesling. The 2003 Montelena Estate Zinfandel ($28) isn't much of a Zinfandel, but you could wow someone in a brown-bag tasting with the finest Merlot he'd ever sipped. Soft, rich and plummy, this is an ultimate cheese-plate wine. The current Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon release has been in the making since 2000, and rewards the patient tongue with softened tannins, yet prickles the pocketbook ($105). Hopefully, it is free and clear of the Band-Aid aroma that compromises the 1998--but, hey, what do I know. Breaking the rules, our host led us back to the flagship 2001 Napa Valley Chardonnay, which indeed held its apple flavor and pie-crust aroma after the reds. It's only available in a pricey $93 magnum, but it's not bad for kids from the sticks.

Chateau Montelena Winery, 1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga. Tasting room open daily, 9:30am to 4pm. 707.942.5105.

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