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Château Cos-d'Estournel Buys Chateau Montelena

Bordeaux second-growth will take the reins of historic Napa winery

Jo Cooke, Daniel Sogg
Posted: July 22, 2008

One of Bordeaux's top châteaus has bought one of Napa's most historic estates. The owner of Château Cos-d'Estournel, Michel Reybier, purchased Chateau Montelena in Calistoga this past weekend, pending U.S government regulatory approval. While Reybier would not disclose the purchase price, several sources in Napa familiar with Montelena's negotiations told Wine Spectator that the Barrett family, Montelena's owners, had fielded offers between $120 and $150 million for the winery and its 200 acres.

"We have been looking for a while to purchase something in Napa Valley," said Jean-Guillaume Prats, general manager of Cos-d'Estournel. "It's similar to Bordeaux and we can give and take mutual knowledge and experience."

"This is a perfect fit—a dream marriage," said Jim Barrett, in a statement. "We could not have asked for a finer team to carry on this legacy."

Others in Napa Valley were not surprised by the news. "The Europeans are working with a 60-cent dollar. If I were a European vintner who wanted to expand, now is the best time," said Michael Mondavi. "It's the perfect storm, with a strong euro and a weak U.S. economy."

Located in St.-Estèphe, with vineyards abutting Château Lafite Rothschild, Cos-d'Estournel is one of the Médoc's "super" second-growths. Prats' father, Bruno, brought the estate new acclaim after he took over the property in 1971. Reybier, who made his fortune in the food industry, bought it in 2000 and kept Jean-Guillaume as manager.

Jean-Guillaume Prats will lead a mixed team of Montelena and Cos-d'Estournel veterans at the Napa estate.

Montelena is best known for its estate-grown Cabernets, from the Montelena Estate vineyard at the winery in Calistoga. It is also highly regarded for its Napa Valley Chardonnay, and it produces a second Napa Cabernet, along with Riesling and Zinfandel.

The winery vaulted to international fame with the famous 1976 Paris Tasting, where its 1973 Alexander Valley Chardonnay won a blind tasting, vanquishing competition that included prestigious white Burgundies and other California Chardonnays. The tasting is the subject of two upcoming movies, which will only increase Montelena's name recognition.

Located north of Calistoga, the winery dates to 1882, when Alfred L. Tubbs, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, purchased the land and built the chateau. It had been abandoned for decades until 1969, when Los Angeles attorney Jim Barrett led a group of investors to purchase it.

In recent years, however, the winery has battled what the winery termed "cellar funk," with some of its wines tainted by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, which the winery traced back to a problem in their cellar. TCA can form when mold interacts with chlorine and phenols in materials such as wood, cardboard or cork and may impart a musty or moldy character to wines, or mute their fruit character.

Rumors of the winery's impending purchase have swirled around Napa for some time. Sources say that the Barretts began looking for a buyer three months ago. As offers came in, the sale price quickly escalated over $100 million.

Prats told Wine Spectator that once he and Reybier learned Montelena was for sale, it took about a month to close the deal. Reybier has created an executive committee to run the estate, beginning with this fall's vintage, headed by Prats and including Bo Barrett (Jim's son and the current winemaker), current managing director Greg Ralston, and Cos-d'Estournel winemaker Dominique Arangoits.

This is not the first time Bordeaux has looked to Napa. Robert Mondavi's partnership with Château Mouton-Rothschild created Opus One in 1978. Christian Moueix, whose negociant firm owns Chateau Pétrus and several other top Pomerol estates, started Dominus Estate in 1982 as a partnership with Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, the daughters of former Inglenook and Napanook owner John Daniel. In 1994, the partnership was dissolved, leaving Moueix as sole proprietor.

Undoubtedly, Montelena's historic reputation inspired Cos-d'Estournel's bid. The strength of the euro, currently trading at about $1.60, probably helped make the deal happen. But Reybier's team faces several challenges as it takes over. Napa sources familiar with the negotiations question the price tag because the property needs so much work. They believe that the cellar and bottling space is currently too small to grow the brand and that 75 percent of the vineyards must be replanted.

"There's a need for a tremendous amount of maintenance that has been deferred, maybe a facelift of the entire operation," said a vintner familiar with the winery who would not speak for attribution.

Prats admitted that Montelena will require significant investment in both the vineyards and the cellar. He was not concerned about the recent TCA problems. "We are fully aware of the TCA situation, and we investigated it thoroughly. We believe it is a thing of the past."

"It's a great vineyard and I really want to take Montelena to the highest quality level possible," Prats added.

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