This year’s harvest at Chateau Montelena is now complete and the resulting wine is fermenting in tanks or aging in barrels. From what I’ve been told, the overall quality and yield was equal to or better than last year’s bumper crop. I’m looking forward to tasting these new vintages when they become available.
Bo Barrett pulls off the dirt road at the far end of the estate. We step out of the truck and into the shade of a large oak tree, looking back towards the winery over a field of Cabernet grapes planted in 1974. The weather is hot but a gentle breeze is just enough to keep my skin cool. Bo comments, “Our property is unique in that we have all three types of Napa soil. Volcanic, which is up on the hill, the rocky, alluvial soil where water once flowed, and the sedimentary valley floor. Vineyards need to stress to a certain extent to produce great wine. That’s why planting in these soils work so well.”
In 1973, grape harvest started off just like any other for the Bacigalupi family. The long dry summer had parched the hillsides and the sun’s warmth carried into August, broken only by early morning fog. The grapes had gone through veraison and were showing signs of color and sweetness when Mike Grgich, then-winemaker for Napa’s Chateau Montelena, stopped by the farm, and a Chardonnay contract was secured between both parties. As harvest now approached, Charles Bacigalupi and Grgich walked the vineyards every day to take samples with Mike raving about their flavor. Charles remembers, “No one had ever mentioned flavor before when talking about grapes, they were only interested in how high the sugars and acid levels were.”
Once the grapes had ripened to perfection, migrant workers were hired to help the family harvest. Back then, entire families migrated from Mexico; all family members picked fruit and were paid by the bin. When the trailer was full, it was Helen Bacigalupi who drove the grapes over to the Chateau Montelena Winery. She still remembers, “I drove a 1973 VW pickup truck and pulled a trailer full of grapes behind it. The truck barely had enough power to get up the hill through Knights Valley from Healdsburg to Calistoga” laughs Helen. “Just before I reached the hill, I gunned the gas petal, hoping that no other car would slow me down.”
When Helen arrived at Chateau Montelena it was about 5 pm. In those days, grapes weren’t picked at night like they are today because they didn’t have lights for the vineyard. Upon her arrival, Helen asked for the weigh scale. Mike Grgich searched but came up empty, so on subsequent trips, the grapes were weighed on the Witke’s scale in Healdsburg until all the trips had been made and the harvest was completed.
Back in 1964 when the Bacigalupi family planted six acres of Chardonnay along with four acres of Pinot Noir on their Westside Road ranch, many people thought this a risk, as the conventional wisdom and the market still leaned toward prunes. “At the time, I’d never heard of either of those two types of grapes,” says Charles, “and I had to write the names down so I wouldn’t forget them.” But in 1976, the Bacigalupis gained widespread recognition as growers, when the 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay, made with 40% of the Bacigalupi’s fruit, won the famed Judgment of Paris tasting over many highly acclaimed French wines.
The Judgment of Paris consisted of six California Chardonnays along with four French white burgundies that were selected for a blind tasting event in Paris by Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant. Top French wine experts judged and ranked the wines, and the 1973 Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay came out on top, making history. There was also a red blind tasting featuring California Cabernet Sauvignon vs. French Bordeaux in which Napa’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet took top prize. This single event helped to change the world’s perception of California wines.
Grgich made 1,800 cases of the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay using 14 tons of grapes from the Bacigalupis, 20 tons from Henry Dick’s vineyard in Alexander Valley, and 5 tons of grapes from Napa Valley growers John Hanna and Lee Paschich. Today, the Bacigalupi vineyard still produces fruit, but at about half its 1973 levels. Even so, the family plans to keep the famed vineyard for as long as it produces grapes.
Six California Chardonnays along with four French white burgundies were selected for a blind tasting event in Paris in 1976. Top French wine experts judged and ranked the wines, and the 1973 Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay came out on top, making history. There was also a red competition featuring California Cabernet Sauvignon vs. French Bordeaux in which Napa’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet took top prize also.
In Retrospect, the Judgement of Paris was seminal, but at the time, no one was talking about it and it wasn’t until years later that we even heard about it. There just wasn’t much fuss over it at the time. But, as history has shown, it changed the way people viewed California wines.
I had the pleasure of working in the cellar at Robert Mondavi’s Winery back in 1990. At the time, I had just moved to California and a friend of mine Archi, introduced me to Dave the Cellarmaster at Mondavi. After a short conversation, I was hired on the spot. Maybe he liked the fact that I had ambitions to be an artist, I don’t know, but I got the job. I found working the harvest so thrilling, I almost didn’t finish school. But I knew returning to college was the right thing to do and if I still wanted to work in the wine industry, it would be there when I got through. Today I’m glad I finished school because now I get to enjoy both painting wineries and drinking their wine!
I had a great time last weekend with the Ready, Set, Sketch! group. There were 9 participants at different skill levels and all eager to sketch. We started off at the Dry Creek General Store, sketching from across the road. It was a foggy morning but it cleared about 11am.
At noon, we purchased some sandwiches from the Dry Creek Store and headed down the road to Dry Creek Vineyards which is one of the best picnic spots in the area, complete with shade trees, umbrellas, and picnic tables. Following a second sketch of the winery, Phil and I finished the day by tasting some of Dry Creek Vineyard’s wine. I especially liked their Chenin Blanc and Maritage.
On any given day, cyclists, tourists, and locals alike can be found at Alexander Valley’s Jimtown store enjoying hearty seasonal soups, salads, and specialty sandwiches. Founded by Jim Patrick in 1865 as a general store and post office, the store was refurbished in 1991 by current owner Carrie Brown and her late husband John Werner. It’s hard to miss Jimtown’s mascot, a 1955 red Ford pickup parked out front, which was originally used as a county fire truck.
In 1881, Andrea Sbarbono developed an agricultural colony just south of Cloverdale that would later become known as Italian Swiss Colony. In the 1960s, the Colony produced TV commercials that strangely, featured a little old man as a winemaker costumed in an Alpine hat and lederhosen. He closed the commercial with the classic phrase, “That little old winemaker, me!”
Today the wine facility is home to Cellar No. 8 winery. Near the tasting room, two vintage train cars sit in the middle of a vineyard, a carryover from glory days of the 1960s when the Italian Swiss Colony tasting room received more than 10,000 visitors per year.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, located in Asti just south of Cloverdale, stands in a serene landscape of vineyards and mountains. The church was built in 1960 by the agricultural co-op known as the Italian Swiss Colony that produced old world wines. In keeping with the spirit of the colony, wine barrel staves were used to construct the roof and interior wood workings of the church. Its exterior was designed to echo the shape of a wine barrel.
My Sunday Column “Sense of Place” usually runs at the bottom of the Towns section every other Sunday, but today my work was printed in the “Vignette” section at the top of the page. Today’s story is about Robert Rue Vineyards located in the town of Fulton. Bob and Carlene Rue, the winery owners, are some of the nicest people I’ve meet and make some great wines too.
Here is the text (I know it’s a bit hard to read the newspaper from my scan):
South of Fulton and down an old country road, a row of plum trees call attention to Robert Rue Winery. Bob and Carlene Rue purchased this 10-acre, 100 year old vineyard in 1973, and over the years have sold their grapes to many well known local wineries. The vineyard is a field-blend of predominantly Zinfandel, interplanted with Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Alicante Bouschet grapes.
In 2001, Bob and Carlene’s long held dream of producing their own wine became a reality. With the help of winemaker Dan Barwick, and before him, winemaker Carol Shelton, the wine blended from Rue vines has garnered many awards. The first vintage was produced at a custom crush facility and the finished wine stored in their garage. In 2010 the Rue family built a new facility on their property to accommodate an expanding production of almost 1,000 cases per year.
Back in 1964 when the Bacigalupi family planted six acres of Chardonnay on their property, many people thought it was a mistake since the conventional wisdom of the time was to plant prunes, a much more lucrative fruit. But the Bacigalupis gained widespread recognition as growers in 1976 when Château Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay (made with 40% Bacigalupi fruit) won the famed Judgment of Paris tasting over many highly acclaimed French wines. This single event helped to change the world’s perception of California wines.
One of my favorite places for coffee is the Flying Goat in Healdsburg. They have great, freshly roasted coffee, engaging art on the walls, and an overall nice coffee house feel. I’ve been coming here for years to sketch out ideas, think, write, and meet up with friends. Surprisingly though, this is the first time I’ve sketched the place from the inside.