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There are few individuals within the wine industry who have not heard of Chateau Montelena. A once relatively unknown producer from California’s Napa Valley founded back in 1882, Chateau Montelena helped to launch the Napa Valley wine region onto the world-stage following a blind wine tasting in Paris in 1976 (known as the Judgement of Paris).
A British wine merchant by the name of Steven Spurrier sought to compare the Chardonnay varietal and an assortment of Red Wines from France and California. Of the 11 professional wine judges present, each awarded their best scores to Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay along with another California producer. When the wines were revealed, the judges themselves and wine consumers around the world were stunned. Until this point, it had always been assumed that France had better winemaking terroir and techniques.
That being said, the California wine industry has much to thank Chateau Montelena for. Today, the same passion and artistry for wine production continues at the winery (located in the Calistoga AVA), in large part due to effort put forth by current winemaker Matt Crafton.
Chateau Montelena’s Winemaker Matt Crafton
Matt’s passion behind winemaking and Chateau Montelena began while finishing a degree in Economics at the University of Virginia. He discovered a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington extolling the virtues of agriculture which led Matt to the surrounding Shenandoah Valley where the Virginia wine industry was taking root. Upon graduation, he chose to pursue a career in winemaking, working in wine cellars both in the East and in California, sharpening his palate and his appetite for wine knowledge. He then went on to graduate from UC Davis with honors and a degree in viticulture and enology which led to joining Chateau Montelena as Assistant Winemaker in 2008. Matt was named Head Winemaker of Chateau Montelena in 2014
Winetraveler had the opportunity to speak with Matt to better understand what’s happening at this famous winery today, and where the Chateau Montelena team seeks to take the brand into the future. Additionally, we spoke with Matt to get an insider’s perspective on visiting Napa Valley and what he recommends Winetraveler’s should do while in the area.
Interview with Chateau Montelena Winemaker Matt Crafton
Winetraveler (WT): Could you explain Montelena’s progression of its winemaking style… from the founding of the winery, to its current production practices?
Matt Crafton (MC): In 1972, Jim Barrett set out to produce classically-styled wines using sun-ripe California grapes. Not afraid to buck convention or trends, we continue that approach to winemaking today by producing refined, age-worthy, food-friendly wines with a dedicated team of individuals who have decades of experience working in our vineyards and handcrafting our wines.
With freedom being encouraged by Bo Barrett in all aspects of the business, the Chateau Montelena winemaking style is not typical. The wines produced by Chateau Montelena are handcrafted in our cellar by our dedicated winemaking team. The wines express the fruit from which they are made and the vintage in which they are grown, with all other elements in balance to complement the fruit.
To achieve this goal, we use modern crushing, de-stemming and pressing equipment to process the grapes as gently as possible. We then use temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks to allow the wines to ferment slowly and evenly. Once fermentation is complete, the wines are transferred to small, French oak barrels to begin the aging process. We use a combination of new barrels along with older, neutral barrels to ensure that the natural flavors of the grapes are not masked by oak.
After blending and bottling, the wines receive enough aging time prior to release so that they can be enjoyed right away or laid down to mature for years to come.
WT: What is the core winemaking practice that defines Chateau Montelena?
MC: We are unrelenting in our winemaking and keep exploring new ways to improve our craft. Our terroir-driven wines reflect our commitment to expressing the fruit to its highest potential each year coupled with our sustainability efforts defines the winery.
WT: In what ways, if any, did the 1976 Paris Tasting affect how Chateau Montelena produced its wines?
MC: Chateau Montelena has long been a forward-thinking brand, respecting our history while leading innovation over the last four decades, not afraid to buck convention or trends, which is what helped bring the winery and California to the global winemaking forefront. Deeply committed to its future, Chateau Montelena is a leader in sustainability evidenced by its land stewardship for more than 40 years, integrating sustainability into every aspect of the Estate Montelena winery and vineyard buildings. This includes the winery’s sustainability program I spearheaded, which focuses on responsible conservation, industry best practices, and practical economics.
WT: Our readers ask us frequently about Chateau Montelena. What tasting and tour options do you recommend? What’s popular, trending and what visitation strategies might you recommend to have the best experience and avoid crowds?
MC: As we have many types of visitors, we work continuously to uphold the legacy and reputation of Chateau Montelena while also honoring the variations people and their reasons for visiting. We offer tasting experiences for the novice and collector alike, so the recommended tasting experience depends on what the guest is looking for. Tastings include drop in tastings for anyone wanting to taste through our current releases, as well as library tastings for those wanting to explore deeper into the Chateau Montelena portfolio and experience the ageabiliy of our wines through tasting older vintages. We also offer vineyard and estate tours for those curious about our historic property.
WT: What can a visitor expect to experience at the Montelena property and its tasting room locations?
MC: An unparalleled hospitality experience, personalized specifically for their curiosities and desires. The winery’s setting is one of the most peaceful in the Napa Valley – a stone castle carved into a hillside overlooking a Chinese garden, lake and vineyards reaching out to the base of Mount Saint Helena. Constructed in 1888, the historic, Gothic-style stone castle is an iconic image in the Napa Valley. Past the lawn and bocce court is Jade Lake, an incredible Chinese garden where visitors are welcome to walk footbridges connecting to two jaw dropping islands.
WT: What is Chateau Montelena doing that differentiates its wines from the competition? Terroir-driven, production practices, etc.
MC: We are unapologetically Montelena. We invest in our land, in our cellar and in our people, intentionally and strategically to make our wine from our vineyards better with every vintage. We invest in technology that allows us to take better, more calculated risks in driving quality and creativity. This includes Tule Technologies, which gives us a snapshot of the relative health of the vineyard and allows us to quantify the stress that the vines are experiencing. Also TankNet + VinTrace Integration, which allows us to track experiments and trials in real time and follow their progression through the life of the wine with minimal overhead. Finally, the Lotus pumpover device, which makes the maceration process for red wines more consistent and predictable.
WT: Do you have any events on the horizon that our readers should know about?
MC: Harvest is on the horizon, which is really the biggest event of the year for a winemaker. It’s an unbelievable time to visit and experience what makes Chateau Montelena and the Napa Valley so special. There’s nothing else like it in the world.
WT: Do you have any personal recommendations for visiting Napa Valley?
MC: I always recommend having a basic plan in place and making reservations in advance. Most wineries, hotels, and restaurants are small and they may not be able to accommodate you on short notice. So book well ahead if there’s something you absolutely need to see or do. Our offerings here at Montelena tend to fill up quite quickly so definitely reach out beforehand.
What you experience will also vary quite a bit depending on the time of year you visit. Winter tends to be quieter with fewer visitors and a more relaxed environment. This is in direct contrast with harvest, which is fast-paced and exciting. Just don’t over-commit or over-schedule. Stick with 2-3 wineries per day and fill the gaps as they come up, or just relax and soak in the vibe.
WT: What are some of your favorite things to do?
MC: Being a local, I stay off the beaten path most of the year. There are so many great ways to enhance your visit with outdoor activities given our climate and topography. Hiking up the Oat Hill Mine Trail, bicycling in Skyline Park, or paddling up the Napa River are great ways to see the beauty of this valley from a different perspective.
WT: Where do you eat in Napa?
MC: It’s patently difficult to find a bad meal here. I have little kids so we tend to frequent places like the Oxbow Market in Napa that offer plenty of food choices along with a lively atmosphere. Calistoga certainly has plenty of easy-going, small town charm and an excellent variety of cuisines as well. For something special, the team at Press in St. Helena has a thorough wine list with older, rare vintages that can’t be found elsewhere. Oh, and we really love RH in Yountville. But seriously, it’s hard to go wrong.
WT: Hotel recommendations? Our readers love insider perspectives.
MC: The last thing you want to do is choose a hotel that’s far away from where you want to visit. So start there. If the wineries you’re interested in are up-valley, stay in Calistoga or St. Helena to minimize your time on the road. Solage or Indian Springs in Calistoga will provide an exceptional experience. Down-valley, the River Terrace Inn and the Andaz are excellent choices in Napa. The Meritage is popular and a little further out of town for those who’d prefer that. The Bardessono in Yountville is flat out beautiful and luxurious.
WT: What’s a wine region that inspires your winemaking practices?
MC: Given the wines we make, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we take some of our cues from Burgundy and Bordeaux. But Napa is really its own unique region and our winemaking is much more granular. We adapt our winemaking practices to our incredibly special vineyards. That’s where the magic is.
WT: What wine region would you like to visit next, why?
MC: I’d like to visit the Piedmont in Italy. I love Nebbiolo and we haven’t quite figured out how to do it well in California (yet).
Did you enjoy our interview with Matt? We certainly encourage you to see the property and their production techniques in person. You can learn more about how to visit Chateau Montelena here.