An Afternoon with Chateau Montelena

Posted May 27, 2015

Geoff Gates


Daily wine deals emailed to your inbox.

Few things are as fulfilling as attending a wine tasting and world class lunch, right smack in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon two days before taking a week of vacation *cue rousing audience applause*. I know, I’m a lucky dude. But I didn’t simply do it for my own self-indulgence, I did it knowing full well that I’d be tasting and reviewing wines for you, fellow wine lover. And I’m excited to report that Chateau Montelena did not disappoint.

Chateau Montelena is steeped in a rich history, with roots stemming all the way back to 1882 in the Calistoga District of northern California. Not only were they in operation before prohibition, a thirteen-year experiment that almost crippled the Napa Valley, but they made it out alive after its repeal. A touted claim to fame is their ‘73 Chardonnay taking first-place at the famous Paris Tasting, held on May 24, 1976. The stone castle still rests in the Napa Valley hillside, offering a wide variety of delicious wines and beautiful experiences.

Now, onto the tasting. I walked into a room in the Westin, San Francisco, fit for the Duchess of Cambridge. Dim lighting filled my eyes while jazz music filled my ears. Upon arriving I was greeted by Matt Crafton, Chateau Montelena’s Winemaker. Young and jovial, he’s as good a storyteller as he is a winemaker. We chatted briefly while sipping his 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay (which I’ll dive into greater detail momentarily). We’re asked to take our seats to begin the meal and continue the tasting. Mel Borbola, Chef de Cuisine, greeted us and walked us through each succulent dish that he prepared.

2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay

The ‘12 Chardonnay grapes experienced perfect growing weather while on the vines, and it shows in the end product. Sharp acidity balances the 10 months in French oak, with hints of green apple and grapefruit. An excellent wine that needs some time to grow into itself, but when it does, I want a case.

Course 1: Turkey meatball with Vietnamese spices, pressed watermelon with curry yogurt & toasted coconut, smoked chicken “Waldorf” profiterole with roasted fruit, and preserved lemon creme fraiche & celery walnut “pesto”.

I was unable to snag photos of the appetizers as they were presented as finger foods, and I was far too busy sipping on ‘12, mingling, and stuffing my face to also wield my camera, but you can take my word for it that they were exquisite. The turkey meatballs had the perfect amount of spice to bring out the natural turkey flavors. The pressed watermelon was something like I’ve never tasted before, an explosion of fruit juice and creamy yogurt. The chicken waldorf was succulent, and the lemon crème fraîche was refreshing. The ‘12 Chardonnay paired well with all the items on the menu, and I had to have two pours to make it through all of the appetizers (what, I was thirsty!).

2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay

This wine is bonkers and is hands down one of the best wines from the tasting. A full, creamy mouthfeel is made even better with flavors of freshly churned butterscotch and light oak. A crisp acidity makes way for a smooth, refreshing finish. Every instance it hit my tongue it seemed to somehow improve upon itself.

2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay

The first thing you’ll notice with the ‘10 is that the nose isn’t quite as strong as the ‘11 or ‘12. Additionally, the flavors are similar to the ‘11 but a tad muted. Kiwi and light oak make for a mighty fine experience.

Course 2: White asparagus polonaise, rye crumbles, egg mousse, caraway aiolo

This was the standout dish for me. The crunchy rye crumbles combined with the egg mouse was a match made in Heaven’s kitchen. I almost put the plate to my face to lick it clean, but I didn’t want to get kicked out before the remainder of the wines.

2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay

The nose here might be one of my favorites, a lemony zest that smells refreshing and fruity. Freshly sliced green apple on the palate. The ‘09 has less acidity and is more fruity than the ‘10; so if you’re looking for a seriously drinkable wine, look no further.

2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay

This ‘08 is another standout for me. Its age shines through with a well developed structure and great weight. The nose is significantly different than the rest; tropical passion fruit and oak shine through. Spicy oak and citrus on the tongue paired quite well with the white asparagus and egg mouse.

Course 3: Roasted poussin, corn puree, English peas, spiced baby carrots, harissa butter

Talk about succulent, I had to use a net to catch the meat because it fell off the bone every time I lifted it from the plate. Tender and juicy, the corn puree and harissa butter were the perfect companions.

2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay

The nose is woody and earthy. It took a little while to open up, but when it did, it was a lovely experience. Its acidity has had time to age, and the oak is showing through more on this one than it’s brothers and sisters. A beautiful apricot flavor paves the way for a smooth minerality.

2006 Napa Valley Chardonnay

Attention: This is hands down the highlight bottle of the day. Butterscotch, spice, nose is less fruit and more wood. Beautifully balanced. Full mouth feel. Fresh, aromatic, delicious. Delicious. DELICIOUS.

Dessert: Composition of strawberry rhubarb compote, lemongrass panna cotta, quenelle of chocolate creamy

Whoa momma. Maybe it was the fully belly, maybe it was the six glasses of wine. Either way, I missed my opportunity to get a picture of the dessert portion of the afternoon. Probably for the better because if I had proof that it existed I would have bragged about it to all my friends and carried a picure of it in my wallet like the proud father of a newborn child.

2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Not a big alcohol wine, but it doesn’t need to be. Aromatic purity is profound. Palate is red, fruity, and spicey. Nose is almost soothing. Balanced the rhubarb and quite chocolate well. Enjoy it with food or without.

I want to thank the entire staff at Chateau Montelena for a wonderful afternoon, especially Matt Crafton - Winemaker,  Stephen Schmitz,  Account Director, and Mel Borbola - Chef de Cuisine.


Geoff Gates gained his wine experience working the tasting tables at Blomidon Estate Winery, giving him enough clout to be the guy who orders the vino at every group outing. A New York native, he's recently moved to San Francisco to write more articles and, of course, drink more wine.