The Bordelais Hit Napa

  • Monday 3 November 2008

Chateau Montelena's sale to Bordeaux second-growth Cos d'Estournel shocked the wine world. Will the new owners change what many see as one of California's top estates? Stephen Brook investigates

The French have made few incursions into California.

Other than Chateau Potelle, St Supéry, and the Moueixowned Dominus, the only other major

Gallic-owned property is Opus One – conceived as a joint venture.

So it was a surprise when long-established Chateau Montelena was recently sold to Michel Reybier, the owner of Cos d’Estournel.

Montelena was founded in the 1880s, but collapsed, like so many Napa properties, during Prohibition. Wine production only resumed in 1968, with the first vintage in 1972.

At the famed Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, its Chardonnay triumphed and Montelena’s reputation was made. Since then, the ripe, savoury, long-lived estate Cabernet has always been the best wine.

Bo Barrett, son of founder James, has run the property for 25 years. It’s clear he’s a born surfer, but also one who has proved a great custodian of Montelena.

So why the sale? ‘My parents are in their eighties and I’ve spent 25 years managing Montelena. But I have four siblings who have never been involved in the business – if I were to continue, I would need to buy them out. I simply can’t afford to.

‘We never put up a For Sale sign, but let it be known discreetly that we were open to offers, perhaps to a joint undertaking rather than an outright sale.

We had various offers, but none seemed right. Then we heard that Reybier was looking for another property and he and his team came over. I think Jean- Guillaume Prats [general manager of Cos] was quite smitten with the vineyards here. Anyway, they seemed the right people, so we decided to sell it to them.’

Barrett will stay on. ‘But I want to do the fun stuff again: the farming, winemaking and deciding when to press the Zinfandel. As general manager, I find I’m spending more time buying dental insurance for my 50 employees.

Building up Montelena has often been more fun than running it.

‘I know we’ll be in good hands. Reybier and Prats really understand this property and its potential. They want to keep our team intact and give them better tools to work with.

But it’s time to put Montelena into dry dock, give its engines an overhaul, and see what the interplay between Californian experience and French know-how can offer.’

Prats confirmed that Reybier had been looking for a property outside Bordeaux ever since he bought Cos. He looked in South Africa, the Rhône, Argentina, Spain and Hungary.

So why Napa?

‘Because Bordeaux and Napa have so much in common,’ says Prats. ‘We grow the same varieties [though Montelana also makes Zinfandel and Chardonnay] and have similar markets and distribution. It didn’t make sense for us to buy in Burgundy or New Zealand.

We agreed a deal in five weeks. The potential was obvious, but investment was needed in the cellar and vineyards.’

Is there a culture clash between the Bordelais and the laid-back Californians? ‘Of course!’ Prats laughs, ‘but that’s what makes it fascinating.

In Bordeaux we are driven by analyses, by science, whereas the Californian growers and winemakers rely more on tasting and hunches. We will learn from each other – we’re not going to make radical changes in style.

‘We don’t see Montelena as a brand that we can develop. Rather, it’s an estate we can improve. Perhaps the Cabernet will be a bit more modern in style, but we are absolutely not going to make a big, jammy, heavyweight Cabernet.

We’re looking to develop more density, achieved with longer macerations and more press wine. We want it to taste enjoyable when young, but to have the same capacity to age as Montelena.’

I suspect both sides are happy with the deal, but it’s too tempting not to speculate on Montelena’s future. Napa has not always been kind to the French.

When Opus One began planting, it adopted the high-density Médoc model, on soils considerably more fertile than those of Bordeaux. Carbon-copying this practice in Napa Valley didn’t work, so adjustments were made.

At Dominus, Christian Moueix admits it took a few vintages to adjust. Early yields were too tannic, and he soon learnt to modify his use of press wine.

Prats acknowledges the huge differences not only in climate and soil, but in culture. Cos has always been foremost among top Bordeaux properties eager to invest in and experiment with new technology; Montelena has made do for years with equipment that most Bordelais would regard as antiquated.

That is already being rectified. I think it unlikely that a St Estèphe model will be imposed on Montelena. But I expect the wines will be made with greater precision.

The production of Zinfandel will be considerably reduced, although the new owners plan to retain the old Zin vines on the property.

As for the Chardonnay, which is made in non-malolactic style that finds little favour with fans of big buttery ‘Chards’, Prats indicated to me that he was pretty happy with that style.

All the same, considering the vastly different personalities involved, it will be surprising if a little fur doesn’t fly.

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