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New Montelena Owners Look to the Future

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Sep 17, 2008 4:16pm ET

Never mind troubled wines, a flawed cellar or even the need to replant vineyards.

The Chateau Montelena deal is all about potential and what lies ahead, Jean-Guillaume Prats said Tuesday in an interview in Napa.

Prats, general manager of Bordeaux's Cos-d'Estournel and soon Montelena, said the purchase of this storied Napa Valley winery by Cos' owner, Michel Reybier, had nothing to do with its past wines.

He said he personally hasn't been a fan of the winery's Cabernet or Chardonnay, and maintained that he hadn't tried any of the wines prior to orchestrating the purchase on July 22.

"This isn't about the past 30 vintages to our taste; it's the potential [of the winery and brand]," Prats said. "The [Montelena] name is historic. We looked at the future, not the past."

"Frankly I didn't taste the wines," Prats said, "and I didn't care. It was only after [the purchase] that we found out about the problems."

Those problems are in the cellar and the wines, he said. The winery's cellar had TCA (2,4,6 trichloroanisole) taint, which found its way into the Cabernet. Prats said many of the wines had notably detectable levels of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that can give a wine an earthy, leathery, or even dirty taste.

Reybier "paid a very high price for something that will be a [long-term] investment, not a turn-key operation," Prats said. "We feel like [Montelena] is 10 to 15 years behind their [Napa Valley] counterparts."

He added that he knew what it was like to retool a winery. "In 1990 Cos was behind the times" and in need of modernization, he said. "That's a fact, not a criticism" of either property.

At Montelena, he said, the winemaking equipment was outdated (it will be replaced for this harvest by equipment shipped from Cos), the cellar too small and insufficiently ventilated and the vineyard in need of an overhaul. He also said the winery used old barrels and that they too would be replaced by more new French oak.

Wearing a long-sleeved pinstriped shirt with his cuffs rolled up, Prats, 38, spoke candidly of the challenges and opportunities at Montelena, repeatedly returning to the property's potential but also its problems.

"The cellar is too small and needs to be cleaned very quickly and that has been the cause of their problems," he said, noting that TCA and  brettanomyces "are nothing new," and are not uncommon in many cellars, especially in Bordeaux. "Hundreds of wineries have the same problem," he said, adding that "All the wooden cellars [in Bordeaux] built between the two wars have TCA."

He said that, once he became aware of the TCA taint in the cellar walls, he tore a small piece of wood from the wall and carried it back to Bordeaux for laboratory analysis, which showed the level of TCA taint. He said that he hid the piece of wood in his sock to avoid detection on his flight home out of a concern that it somehow might be confiscated.

While he declined to disclose the purchase price, he said the current exchange rate of the euro versus the U.S. dollar made it possible to pay the equivalent of buying a top Bordeaux château. As an example, he offered that one winery in Bordeaux that is currently for sale—Château Lascombes—had been seeking 170 million euro, but the offers were coming in closer to the 125 million euro range. He said that Montelena's purchase fell in between those two figures, as has been reported, and hinted that it's closer to what bidders are offering for Lascombes.

While Prats is active in suggesting how the 2008 Cabernet will be made—and that winemaker Bo Barrett was receptive to his ideas—he quipped, "First of all, we haven't paid yet, so that's a problem." The deal is expected to close on Oct. 15. Until then, it's still the Barretts winery. Owner Jim Barrett "sold it 10 years too late," Prats said, in a reference to the winery's outdated equipment and need for expansion and remodeling.

"The key problem at Montelena is the cellar is too small to make wine, so for us 2009 will be the first vintage," Prats said. That's when his winemaking team will have a new cellar, equipment and greater control over winemaking.

"For the moment I'm learning," he said. "It's such a great privilege to run Cos and Montelena." Since he hasn't tasted many Montelena Cabernets, we discussed the style of Napa Cabernet that he likes and he cited as examples Joseph Phelps Insignia, Shafer Hillside Select, Harlan and Tim Mondavi's new wine, Continuum.

At Cos, he said, "We like fairly intense wines."

Robert Hight
September 17, 2008 8:01pm ET
Great interview James. Prats said what many of us have been thinking for quite some time: the wines are tired and affected. I can't remember the last time I tasted a good Montelena cab or chard. Let's hope the future is as bright as Prats believes. A last add for the new owners: keep the Potter Valley reisling. It's some of the best in the U.S.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  September 18, 2008 1:04am ET
Cos is good, but buying a property without first fully understanding its systemic problems seems like equal parts idiocy and hubris. I visited Montelena two years ago. The wines were bad. All of them. I'm visiting the area tomorrow but will skip Montelena. I'll try Montelena again in 2010 and see how Mr. Prats is doing.
Steve Shelton
Yuba City, Ca. —  September 23, 2008 1:10am ET
I have a feeling these guys have found a pearl in a cow pie and everyone will be gushing over these wines in three to four years!
John Osgood
New York, NY —  September 23, 2008 3:27pm ET
I visited Montelena a few weeks ago and did a library tasting. It wasn't bad but it wasn't too good either. I'm hoping for better things in the future.

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