Although the Napa Valley has now become synonymous with wine, history shows that this area can sustain a wide array of crops. In the previous century, the Napa Valley was once home to vast orchards of walnuts, prunes, and pears. These crops became especially dominant during the 1920s and 1930s, with Prohibition mitigating the grape-growing industry (because home wine-making remained legal under the Volstead Act, plenty of wine grapes still existed in Napa during Prohibition — the only difference was that the emphasis shifted to lesser-quality grapes that could survive a cross-country trip by rail car).
If we turn back the clock 150 years and revisit the Napa Valley on the heels of the California Gold Rush, the original crop here was actually wheat, planted heavily throughout the mid-1800s, before the first wave of wine production began at the end of the century (the Bale Grist Mill in Calistoga, originally built in 1846, remains a vestige of the Napa Valley’s wheat industry — it’s worth visiting if you appreciate a glimpse into 19th-century food production).
I mention the past only to illustrate how much the Napa Valley has now edged towards a very specific type of monoculture: Not only has this area been planted over almost exclusively to wine grapes, but in particular, Cabernet and Chardonnay dominate the present landscape. Of course, this trend is a simple function of economics — there is a tremendous opportunity cost to planting anything other than Cabernet or Chardonnay, since these grapes fetch the highest prices on the market.
Still, I have a fascination for the early days and the old ways. And as much as I enjoy Cabernet, I also like things that are different and esoteric. I recently spent the afternoon wine tasting along Tubbs Lane, a short stretch of road that links two noteworthy Calistoga wineries, Chateau Montelena and Summers Estate. Both of these wineries acknowledge the past in interesting ways, as I’ll point out in my wine notes:
Chateau Montelena 2012 Potter Valley Riesling, $25 • I sometimes consider Riesling to be the ultimate wine grape because, at its very best, Riesling seems to be greatest conduit of terroir. Naturally, I’m talking about German and Alsatian Rieslings in particular, but I tend to welcome Napa Valley Rieslings into my cellar as well. When the German settlers, such as the Beringers and the Krugs, planted the Napa Valley’s first wine grapes, they planted their native Riesling.
Ultimately, Riesling remained somewhat common in the Napa Valley until the Chardonnay boom of the late 1970s pushed it out. Chateau Montelena began its current wine production in 1968, and Riesling was part of the early business model. Although times have changed, the winery still offers this varietal (almost exclusively through the tasting room), and I appreciate the nod to the past, even if this Riesling is technically from Mendocino County.
The 2012 Chateau Montelena Riesling features about 0.5% residual sugar, meaning that it offers a noticeable sweetness along with its core acidity. For that reason, it’s extremely approachable. Best of all, it’s $25 and it’s not Chardonnay.
Chateau Montelena 2011 Chardonnay, $50 • I mentioned the Napa Valley Chardonnay boom of the late 1970s, and the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay had everything to do with this paradigm shift. After all, it was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris in 1976. Almost 40 years later, Chateau Montelena Chardonnay remains iconic in the Napa Valley, and the wine remains Burgundian in spirit, with zero malocatic fermentation and 10 months in French oak. But at the same price as the 2010 Chateau Montelena Cabernet, I would tend to choose the latter.
Chateau Montelena 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet, $50 • I have a list of the best Napa Valley Cabernets under $50, and this wine certainly deserves consideration when I do my updates and revisions next year. Once again, it’s the well-established wineries that have kept Cabernet prices relatively moderate. The 2010 Chateau Montelena Cabernet is based largely upon Calistoga fruit, with a blend of 91% Cabernet, 7% Merlot, and 2% Cabernet Franc.
Chateau Montelena 2009 Estate Cabernet, $150 • Let’s not forget where we are. Right or wrong, many Napa Valley Cabernets still command big prices. The 2009 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet is 98% Cabernet and 2% Cabernet Franc. It’s a delicious wine, balanced and well-made, but I’d be more likely to buy three bottles of the 2010 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cab.
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Tubbs Lane is named after Alfred Loving Tubbs, who purchased 250 acres in Calistoga in 1882, after making a fortune during the Gold Rush (like most people who became wealthy during this era, Tubbs didn’t discover gold, he manufactured and sold rope to the miners). Tubbs constructed Chateau Montelena, and produced wine up until Prohibition. Though the Tubbs family sold the property in the 1950s, Tubbs Lane remains their namesake. Chateau Montelena now shares Tubbs Lane with one of my favorite “new” wineries, Summers Estate, which purchased its current tasting room location in 1996.
Summers Estate 2012 Stuhmuller Reserve Chardonnay, $32 • I suppose the irony of Summers Estate is that their Cabernet and Chardonnay aren’t from the Napa Valley. I don’t mention this fact as a criticism, just something unique. The 2012 Stuhmuller Reserve Chardonnay is from Alexander Valley, and the wine is medium-bodied thanks to a regimen of 30% malolactic fermentation and 30% new French oak.
Summers Estate 2010 Villa Andriana Vineyard Charbono, $32 • Summers Estate has always been one of my favorite Napa Valley wineries because it’s the world’s largest estate producer of Charbono., a grape that was once popular in the Napa Valley during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, but which has virtually disappeared from production. Only about 100 acres of Charbono remain in the world, and the grape has been listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. Originally from Italy, Charbono is an eminently enjoyable red, and it’s the signature wine from Summers Estate.
Summers Estate 2010 “Four Acre” Estate Zinfandel, $34 • This wine is a beautiful single-vineyard Zinfindel, and at just 14.2% alcohol, it shows more finesse than heady fruit. Really nice Zin.
Summers Estate 2010 Knights Valley Reserve Merlot, $34 • One of the few blended wines at Summers Estate, this offering is 88% Merlot, 8% Cabernet, and 4% Syrah. I felt that this wine was a terrific example of Napa Valley Merlot, and I felt that it trumped both of the Cabernets from the same vineyard, both in terms of complexity and completeness.
Summers Estate 2010 Knights Valley Cabernet, $38 • As I mentioned above, I would opt for the Merlot, but at $38 for Cabernet, I still feel this wine is fairly priced. The Merlot juts seems to offer greater value.
Summers Estate 2010 Knights Valley Cabernet Reserve, $59 • Summers Estate selects the 20 best barrels from their Cabernet program for this reserve bottling. Again, $59 is not outrageous for Cabernet these days, but the Merlot is the smart move.