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by Andrew Chalk

The 1976 Judgement of Paris in which California wines outscored French wines at a blind tasting, judged largely by French judges, put California wine on the global map. The top white wine out of the ten in the tasting was the 1973 Chateau Montelena, out scoring four top Burgundies. With that victory, Chateau Montelena became a global household name.

The winery exists under the same ownership today, although a younger generation has taken the reins. The wine maker since 2014 (and Assistant Winemaker from 2008-2014) has been Matt Crafton, a University of California, Davis viticulture and enology graduate who started making wine in his native Virginia before moving to California. I recently had the opportunity to interview him (under lockdown conditions!) and catch up with what the winery is doing now.

AC: Chateau Montelena is defined by the victory of its Chardonnay at the Judgement of Paris (JoP). Obviously, that was made by someone else (Mike Grgich) but I am sure that you have been fortunate enough to taste the wines of that era. How does the Chardonnay that you make today differ from those?

Matt Crafton: Ironically, I have never tasted the 1973. I hope to, but when it was opened recently at the 40th anniversary of the JoP. I happened to be on a sales call on the other coast. I have had all of the other Chardonnay wines of the 1970s. Back then, Napa wineries were still hunting around trying to find what worked, so there was a lot of stylistic variation. Each vintage we produced had an old world inspiration, or prototype. Considering the Burgundies in the JoP I would say that we were closest to Meursault ‘Les Charmes’ (represented by Domaine Roulot at the JoP) and that would apply today.

AC: What about Chateau Montelena chardonnay stylistically, relative to other California chardonnays?

Matt Crafton: Our style is not scalable. There is a very small area of Napa Valley that can grow chardonnay with the characteristics we need and that constrains how much we can produce. There is vintage variation of course (and that;’s a good thing in our minds) but an enduring practice is that I pick before letting the grapes get too ripe.

AC: You are a unique property. Describe it starting with the vineyard and then the viticulture.

Matt Crafton: The Montelena Estate is a unique contiguous parcel of just 100 acres. I have a very detailed soil map and there is lots of diversity in those soils. The Mayacamus mountains are to the west, the Vaca range to the east, and Mt. St. Helena looms to the north. The conditions they create, both above and below ground, fashion a rich palate of colors and flavors to paint with. New vines go in at a density of 1800 vines/acre. In the old days vineyards were planted less densely, and aligned so that they were either parallel or perpendicular to the existing vineyard roads or the Napa River. Now their orientation is such that afternoon heat bears down on top of the canopy. All these changes have happened here in Calistoga, where we grow our Bordeaux varieties. Our chardonnay, however, is cultivated in the southern portion of Napa Valley. We have chosen clones 4,17, and 548 for those areas. However, my viticultural hierarchy from most to least important factors goes Soil->Rootstock->Variety->Trellising->Clone.

Rootstock: It needs to fit your soil and your climate. Those have to be understood first and foremost. Factors to consider for rootstock are pest/disease resistance, drought tolerance, and vigor. Forty years ago St George and AXR1 were the most popular selections in Napa Valley, but there are literally dozens to consider today;

Variety: Most grape growers are strongly influenced by commercial criteria. Acquiring land and farming is expensive, especially in California. We look at it differently and focus on growing the right grape variety in the right place. For example, a site may have the potential to yield A+ zinfandel or third-tier cabernet sauvignon. Those average cabernet grapes sell for $8,000/ton, whereas prime zinfandel will maybe fetch $5,000. At Montelena, we’ll choose to grow zinfandel every time because of the quality of the wine that we can produce. Few people would make the same decision. In Oak Knoll merlot grows well for the same reason it thrives in the right bank of Bordeaux -- clay soils;

Trellising: Has assumed greater importance over time due to the work of researcher Richard Smart. I like cane pruning although it’s old-school and labor-intensive. Canopy is VSP (vertical shoot positioning). If row orientation is right, trellising is greatly facilitated;

AC: Let’s come back to vine stress. How much is needed?

Matt Crafton: Stress refers to the vine’s access to water and it is parabolic. You can have too little or too much. The ideal is somewhere in between. One of the changes in this business is that there has been a major improvement is modern instrumentation to tell us how much moisture the vine has, and how much to feed it and when. Plus we are able to dry farm some of our vineyard.

AC: You mentioned new instrumentation. In what other other major ways has farming changed since you started?

Matt Crafton: We have new rootstocks, a better understanding of vine stress, and less disease in the vineyard now.

AC: And the other side of the process, wine making. What is your attitude to issues like oak and choice of fermentation vessels?

Matt Crafton: Oak is a spice. I tend to be conservative. After all, anyone can go out and buy an expensive new French oak barrel. On exotic fermentation vessels (e.g. concrete tanks), I am reminded of something Randall Grahm told me: There are wines of effort, and wines of place. I make the latter.

AC: Looking around the property, you are in paradise. But what if I dropped a ton of money on you to establish a totally new vineyard somewhere else. Where would you go?

Matt Crafton: Off the top of my head I would say north Sonoma, Mendocino, or Humboldt County. Lots of interesting things are happening there with varieties I have never worked with (but love) like nebbiolo.

AC: Following the JoP, why did Chateau Montelena not do the kind of massive expansion pursued by others?

Matt Crafton: Jim’s (Jim Barrett) desire was not to be the largest, but to be the best. Bo, his son, our current CEO, Judy, and siblings agreed.

AC: Since the JoP in 1976, most foundation wineries in Napa, and every single one of the California wineries in the JoP, have been sold. But not Montelena. You came close in July 2008 when Michel Reybier, proprietor of Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, was reported to have bought you, only for the sale to be cancelled just prior to consummation, presumably because the economic crisis that became known as the ‘Great Recession’ started with the September collapse of Lehman Brothers. Why are you still independent?

Matt Crafton: That was a strange time. It was announced literally a week after I started. I was gung ho in my new job and then I was told “Oh, by the way, we are selling the winery”. It turned out that after the cancellation, Jim Barrett was reinvigorated to make major improvements in the winery, so good came out of it after all.

As for acquisition, we get periodic nibbles of course, but Bo Barrett, our current CEO, is happy being independent.

AC: The future. What are Chateau Montelina’s plans?

Matt Crafton: I am always experimenting. Currently 20% of my lots are R&D. We have planted petite sirah and there may be an increase in petit verdot in our blend. I also like cabernet franc and see a bigger role for it.

AC: Matt, thanks for your time -- and stay safe.



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