The Judgement of Paris – the 1976 winners in 2014
California has a long wine-making history dating back to 1769 when the first vineyards were planted by Spanish missionaries. Since then, the state has twice recovered from phylloxera as well as Prohibition, at the end of which there were only 140 wineries still in operation. Today California accounts for nearly 90% of American wine production, produces more wine than Australia and has more than 1,200 wine producers plying their trade in the Golden State.
The real watershed moment for Californian wine came in 1976 when British wine merchant Stephen Spurrier organised a blind tasting in Paris, pitting the best of Californian Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon against their French powerhouse equivalents from Burgundy and Bordeaux. Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 Cab Sauv came out top in each category at “The Judgement of Paris” and I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to taste at both wineries on my recent trip to California.
If you are unaware of The Judgement of Paris then watch the move Bottle Shock; it may not be accurate and Stephen Spurrier may not be a fan but it’s a great watch and Alan Rickman (as usual) is superb!
I will admit upfront that one of the visits was ten times more enjoyable than the other but I have not let this cloud my judgement of the wines, which were of a very high standard. The one striking similarity between the two however, was the fact that the wines that came in first position at The Judgement of Paris almost 40 years ago are no longer the premier cuvee from either winery…
Alfred Loving Tubbs bought 254 acres of land just north of Calistoga at the foot of Mount Saint Helena (Montelena is a shortened version of this) in 1882 and by 1896 Montelena was the seventh largest winery in the Napa Valley. After a few changes in ownership, the winery was bought by Helen Paschich in 1968, who brought in Jim Barrett as partner and winemaker. Jim made his first wines from the 1972 vintage, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The ivy-clad chateau that welcomes you as you enter the ground is one of the most beautiful buildings I have come across on any of my wine tours. The grounds themselves are beautifully manicured, complete with lake and dramatic Chinese garden. The tasting room is plush and elegant, with plenty of buzz from the large number of visitors, the walls lined with the chateau’s history; a bottle of the 1973 Chardonnay taking pride of place… and that is where the fun ended…
You can book a number of “experiences” in advance but I liked the fact that you could just turn up, pay your $25 and enjoy a few of the current releases. The staff in the tasting room are courteous enough but there is no individuality, no flair. Everything comes across like a learned script; it’s as if nothing exists outside of the Chateau Montelena confines. Everywhere else I went in California, tasting room staff were full of recommendations of where else to go, what else to drink; in the Montelena tasting room there was an air of arrogance, a feeling that now you’ve been here why on earth would you want to go anywhere else. I felt a bit cheated to be perfectly honest. As I said earlier, it was busy when we arrived but still, if you are going to create a Disneyland-like experience then you need the customer service to match.
Anyway, enough about that, what is really important in the wine. The tasting almost apologetically included the (very good!) 2012 vintage of the famous Chardonnay; these days the winery is really pushing its Cabernet, the ultimate badge for Napa Valley winery:
Chateau Montelena Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($35)
Lemons and limes on the nose with plenty of the same citrus fruit and sharp citrus acidity on the palate. A simple and refreshing wine, perfectly suited to summer glugging, but $35?? 88 points
Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 2012 ($50)
Really light straw colour in the glass but plenty of punch on the nose. Traditional aromas of apples, peaches and that lovely nutty buttered toast. I love the striking acidity and the touches of vanilla and other sweet spices from the oak and lees ageing. Fresh, crisp and ever so modern – my gums were still tingling from the acidity a couple of minutes later! Very different to the 1973 version I have no doubt! 93 points
Chateau Montelena Zinfandel 2011 ($39)
Spicy and smoky on the nose with plenty of brambly fruit inviting you in. On the palate the wild strawberry and cheery fruit is amply supported by smoky Asian five-spice. The texture is silky smooth and the balance is delightful – plenty of complexity but also very easy drinking. Thumbs up. 92 points
Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($170)
Blackberry and blackcurrant nose with a savoury, sage edge as well as some well-worn leather coming through. On the palate there is a sumptuous mix of red and black berry fruit, some cedar, leather, a nice touch of graphite and warming spice. The tannins are smooth and the acidity is good – drinking very well right now. 93 points
Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($150)
The fruit on the nose is reserved and elegant with some sweet spice and a note of cocoa and eucalyptus starting to show through. The fruit on the palate is concentrated but retains its elegance. The balance is nearly there, a few m ore years for the tannins to round out and this will be a belter. 93+ points
I also enjoyed a bottle of 2012 Riesling with dinner a few days before the visit – I didn’t make any notes but there was lots of lime fruit and a warm, toasty note and just a hint of residual sugar – went very well with my fried chicken and waffles!
STAG’S LEAP WINE CELLARS
The winery was formed in 1970 when Warren Winiarski purchased a 44 acre prune orchard, producing its very first wines in 1972. Amazingly, as with Jim Barrett at Montelena, the second vintage of Stag’s Leap Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and the first made in their own winery, won the Judgement of Paris and a legend was born.
Be careful when planning a visit not to confuse Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars with Stags’ Leap Winery; in 1986 a court decided that as both wineries were founded in the same year and named after the area, both were allowed to use the name… although the apostrophes had to appear in different places!
The stylish and modern tasting room at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is hidden up a few steps, behind a beautiful canopy of green. There is a real buzz as you enter with visitors sitting on chairs and comfy sofas on the outside terrace as well as those hovering around the counter area and indoor seating spaces. I had more fun here than anywhere else in Napa, our server was a real wine-nerd (in the most positive way!) and danced us from glass to glass, with great humour and bags of personality.
There was a choice of two tastings available (no appointment required), the Napa Valley Collection Tasting Flight at $25 or the Estate Collection Tasting Flight for $40. We opted for the Estate Collection, as I was so eager to try the latest vintage of the wine that won in Paris, but in fact we got to try everything as “you’ve travelled too far not to try all this stuff”!
Stag’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($26)
Very drinkable SM with plenty of citrus, nice dash of grapefruit and just the right amount of gooseberry on the nose. All of the fruit is present on the palate and there is a nice tropical richness balancing the wonderful acidity. Really reminded me of a quality Sancerre. 92 points
Stag’s Leap Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 ($50)
This is a pretty simple wine, but no less enjoyable because of it. Fresh and crisp with a ton of apples on the nose and palate and just a hint of pear. Fresh, clean and very gluggable, if a touch on the expensive side. 91 points
Before moving on the the main event we tasted a number of other wines but I just find my notes – so sorry!
Stag’s Leap FAY Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($110)
The Fay vineyard was planted by Nathan Fay in 1961 and was the first planting of cabernet Sauvignon in the Stag’s Leap district. The nose is big and super-ripe fruit with a touch of green pepper and a hint of liquorice. I’m expecting a blockbuster on the palate but what I get are like feathers of black fruit brushing my tongue. The lightness of touch and fine tannins are remarkable – so much flavor but such elegance, grace and poise. The fruit keeps on coming and subtle hints of baking spice and young oak. Very complete and so enjoyable. 93+ points
Stag’s Leap SLV Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($110)
From the Stag’s Leap vineyard, this is the 2011 version of the winning wine from 1976. The fruit is sweeter and more forward than the wine from Fay, with sumptuous cherry notes backing up the blackcurrant and blackberry foundation and power. But again the power is kept in check with remarkable acidity, fine tannin and an elegance that is reminiscent of Cabernets from Margaux. 93+ points
Stag’s Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($225)
The Fay is great; the SLV is sumptuous… what happens when you blend the best of the two vineyards together? Basically you get 1+1=3! The brooding deep black fruit of the Fay and sweeter, cherry scented fruit from SLV combine together in a cornucopia of sumptuousness that makes you wonder why anyone would consider drinking a liquid that smells this good. I know I’ve used elegance a lot to describe the Cabs of Napa but this is ridiculous – how the wine manages to combine such concentration and poise is beyond me – it messes with my mind but I absolutely love it. Silky smooth with hints of chocolate, a touch of coffee, some sweet baking spice and something savoury and delicious – bay perhaps. This is up there with some of the very wines I have had the pleasure to try… I just wish I had the deep pockets to enjoy it at home! 97 points
Two very different experiences, both with fantastic wine, but only one with the personality to match.