Chateau Montelena is a marquee name among Napa Valley Cabernets, but from a bygone era. The winery, which had been rumored to be for sale, was purchased this past weekend by Michel Reybier of Château Cos-d'Estournel.
It still has fans who admire its sturdy, distinctive, ageworthy style, but most of them are old-guard collectors. For years, from the 1970s through the 1990s, Montelena Cabernet from its Montelena Estate in Calistoga was a cornerstone in many Cabernet collections. It was one of those wines, like Robert Mondavi Reserve, Beringer Private Reserve and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23, that were prized possessions.
But in recent years the allure of Mondavi and Stag’s Leap, and to a lesser extent Beringer, has softened and, in the case of Montelena, quality has lagged. It has been at best an inconsistent performer, with notable cellar issues and bottle variation. Many old-time Montelena drinkers are less thrilled by the wines these days.
These Cabernets, and most others of their era, rose to stardom at a time when there were 30 or 40 wineries in Napa Valley and wineries could corner the valley’s best grapes, most of which were farmed by independent growers. Now most of those vineyards are used for individual brands.
Collectors could readily secure a case or two of these old-guard Napa Cabernets—Montelena, Mondavi Reserve, Stag's Leap and the like—for their cellars, and still can, which is unusual today, when many wineries only produce a few hundred cases and you can only buy three bottles from the winery, if you’re lucky enough to get on the mailing list.
It’s a much more crowded field now, with some 400 individual Napa Cabernet bottlings this year, and the popular trend among Cabernet drinkers is seeking out the next new star. Moreover, wine drinkers increasingly are looking for fleshier, earlier drinking Cabernets, not ones that need extended cellaring.
The sale of Montelena is hardly blockbuster news, yet it underscores the fact that the winery, and brand, are both in transition and in need of an overhaul. Insiders say both the cellar and vineyard need work. Think what you may about the Montelena wines—its Cabernets, Chardonnay or Zinfandel—but they have not been on the cutting edge for some time. Many will argue that that’s a good thing and that those wines represent a more traditional style. Put another way, the wines could be much better. On the plus side, Montelena Cabernet is a fixture on many great restaurant wine lists.
The new owner, Michel Reybier of Cos-d’Estournel, will install an executive committee headed by Cos general manager Jean-Guillaume Prats. Prats' father, Bruno, took the Cos estate to new heights after taking over the property in 1971. Most of the top Bordeaux châteaus have spent lavishly overhauling their vineyards and modernizing their cellars, and the proof is in the bottle. It has become an extremely rich man’s game in many wine quarters these days.
The new owners are aware of Montelena’s past issues and should be prepared to renovate the winery and vineyards. And they hold the long-term view to execute such a vision. Many European firms are flush with cash and the exchange rate is ideal for acquiring U.S. firms. On Monday Swiss drugmaker Roche offered $43 billion for the part of Genentech that it doesn’t already own, and last week, Anheuser-Busch agreed to be taken over by Belgian-Brazilian brewer InBev for nearly $60 billion.
In the end, the main issue, as it always is, will be wine quality, and if Montelena returns to its glory days, it will prove to be a marketable brand, maybe even a great one.
I suspect the glory days for many of Napa's first great wineries—Montelena, Heitz, Stag’s Leap, Mondavi and others—are behind them. As businesses, they have great brand equity in their names. But if the wines don't deliver, their names won't be enough.
Still, it won’t be like the good old days. It’s a much more diversified and demanding market. Yet there’s only so much great Napa Cabernet, so let’s see what the new owners can do. I would expect to see some changes with the 2006 and 2007 vintages and the 2008 harvest will fully bear the signature of the new owners.
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