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WINE

Big Cabs From Calistoga

May 12, 1999|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The little town of Calistoga is in the northern Napa Valley--and then again, it's not. From a viticultural perspective, Calistoga is in a world of its own.

Call it a valley within the Napa Valley. For most of its 30-mile length, the Napa Valley is several miles wide and fairly flat. But just below Calistoga it narrows to half a mile, the hills seem to go straight up on all sides and flat ground all but disappears.

The Calistoga district is a rocky, elevated cul-de-sac that has more in common with the surrounding mountains than with the wide, gently contoured Napa Valley floor to the south.

In addition to being higher, it's also an average of 10 degrees warmer during the day than the lower valley, and the nights are significantly cooler because of cold air flowing down from Mount St. Helena and in from the Pacific along the Russian River Valley. The soils are different, too: complex mixtures of marine and volcanic sediments in layered alluvial deposits.

Underscoring its separateness, the Calistoga district seethes with residual volcanic activity in the form of hot springs and geysers, which are rare in the lower valley. As Robert Louis Stevenson observed 100 years ago in "The Silverado Squatters," "Calistoga itself seems to repose on a mere film above a boiling, subterranean lake."

Vineyards planted in that rugged terrain are remarkably expressive. Calistoga-area Cabernet Sauvignons, in particular, tend to be big, brawny, often very tannic wines which nonetheless can show ravishing fruit on the black-fruit, earthy, tobacco end of the spectrum.

Even when winemakers take the trouble to tone down their rougher elements (not always a good thing, in my opinion) there's no denying the sheer scale and power of Calistoga wines. In comparison, mid-valley wines from Rutherford and Oakville tend to offer more red-fruit character and crisper, minerally undertones, and the Stag's Leap District, in the southeast sector of the valley, often draws descriptions like cherry and chocolate.

Calistoga cabs can be hard as nails in youth. But within that gripping tannini there is usually plenty of fruit, which blooms like a rose as the wine develops over years in the bottle.

The quintessential Calistoga character was displayed in late April in a retrospective tasting of Chateau Montelena "Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon, 1978 to '97, at the Plumed Horse Restaurant in Saratoga. It was the first time the winery has offered a complete vertical of wines from its estate vineyard, which is considered one of the Napa Valley's viticultural treasures.

Chateau Montelena was founded by Bo Barrett's father, Jim, and several partners in 1972, reviving a stone winery built in 1882. One of its first wines, a Chardonnay, made the reputation of then-partner and winemaker Miljenko "Mike" Grgich when it outshone several famous white Burgundies at the legendary Paris Tasting in 1976, the year the first red wines were released.

Bo Barrett had to earn his place in the family business. By his own account a perennial ski bum in his youth and still considered something of a maverick in the rather tightly corked Napa Valley wine world, he started working in the vineyard in 1972. He moved to the cellar in '73--and then quit to go skiing.

"I'd ski for six months, and when I was broke I'd come back to the winery," he recalled with apparent satisfaction. After earning an enology degree from Fresno State in '77, he returned to the winery full time. Unfortunately for his aspirations, Montelena's winemaker at the time was the highly respected Jerry Luper.

"My dad told me, 'You'll never be the winemaker at Chateau Montelena,' " said Barrett. "So I quit," He got a job at another winery. In 1982, Luper moved on and recommended Bo as his replacement, "so my dad had to hire me."

The Barretts planted their estate vineyard in 1972-74. The first few crops went into the regular Chateau Montelena Cabernet (the '77 was 70% from the estate vineyard, Barrett says), but in '78 they began bottling the estate wine separately.

Ten years ago this wine might have been considered just another Napa Valley Cabernet. Now, however, it's highly unusual--a 20-year series of wines from a mature Napa Valley Cabernet vineyard that did not have to be replanted during the phylloxera infestation.

Most Cabernet vineyards planted during the 1970s and early '80s were grafted on AXR-1 rootstock, which is susceptible to the tiny root-sucking aphid that destroyed French and American wine industries in the late 19th century. During the last decade, about two-thirds of Napa Valley's vineyards have been replanted because of phylloxera. The Barretts, however, planted their estate vineyard on an old tried-and-true resistant rootstock called St. George, thus dodging the phylloxera bullet.

Their good fortune was just that, said Barrett. They knew nothing of the impending menace but chose the resistant rootstock because its low-vigor growth and reduced yield fit the style of artisan wines they intended to make.

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