If you looked at Jean-Guillaume Prats’ passport this week, it would have stamps showing he’d been in France, Singapore, Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Thailand (Bangkok), Indonesia (Jakarta), the United States and back to France. All in one week, ending Tuesday when he left Napa.
Tuesday’s interview focused on the purchase of Chateau Montelena. Yet Prats also discussed plans for reshaping the winery’s lineup, the challenges of replanting the vineyard, why Montelena and Cos-d’Estournel are similar and the new marketing strategy.
Montelena, a 40,000-case winery with 200 acres in vines, will go back to a Cabernet-Chardonnay house this vintage, dropping Merlot and Zinfandel yet keeping a small amount of its Anderson Valley Riesling.
We didn’t discuss specifics about style, beyond him identifying a few Napa Valley Cabernet favorites (Caymus, Phelps Insignia, Harlan, Shafer Hillside Select). Aiming for a style closer to those wines would suggest a stylistic shift from the present Montelena method, which at its best has offered wines that are very tight and concentrated, with chewy tannins and great aging capability. The best of the old Montelena Cabernets typically need six to eight years of cellaring, and many aged magnificently for decades.
Montelena Chardonnay also used to define the California style, with little or no malolactic or oak evident. Whether the new regime will purse that style or go more Burgundian, with ML, barrel fermentation and new oak, remains to be seen.
Replanting the vineyard is challenging, Prats said, because there doesn’t seem to be any consensus in Napa on the best designs—dense spacing and irrigation were two topics he discussed. But he also allowed that the new Montelena would use more lab analysis with its grapes and wines than it has in the past; in Bordeaux, he said, vintners rely on what the ripeness figures show through tasting and lab testing.
The similarities between Cos and Montelena are clear to Prats. “The two estates have a lot in common,” he said. “It’s going to be great presenting the two wines together.” They use the same grape varieties, have similar clients and rely on the same critics for analysis and reviews. “It’s really the same kind of wine,” he said. “The only difference is climate and soil.” He said he and his staff have much to learn in coming years about how Napa wines are made, from growing them to vinifying them.
He also said that he would begin selling Montelena’s wines to négociants in Bordeaux next year in a system more similar to what Bordeaux has now. Bordeaux is heavily traded, more of a commodity than smaller-case production California wines, he said. The top châteaus' wines are often sold four or five times, which means the wines change hands often, and that often leads to price increases.
Cos also exports 95 percent of its wine, while Montelena sells nearly all its wines domestically. “In Bordeaux the brands are stronger than the people [who make the wines],” he said, while in California people often buy wines based on the winemaker’s reputation. Bordeaux has a caste system; in America “where you come from is a non-issue,” he said. In America it’s all about credibility.
As for Prats, he says he’ll be in Napa every few weeks to oversee the new operations, cellar and vineyard plans. And as his passport indicates, he’ll also be in the Far East, which is where there’s a lot of Bordeaux action and, likely soon, something new from Napa Valley thrown into the mix.