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Chateau Montelena and TCA

Despite its troubles, this famous estate's best wines are still to come

James Laube
Posted: November 2, 2004

Recently, I found noticeable off flavors in two new Cabernet Sauvignons from Chateau Montelena: the Napa Valley and the estate bottlings. After independent laboratory tests confirmed the presence of TCA in these wines, I felt I couldn't recommend them to Wine Spectator readers.

That may sound severe. It is. But it wasn't an easy call.

For years I've considered Montelena one of California's premier Cabernet producers. I've personally bought the wines for years and still have many in my cellar. I've enjoyed scores of bottles of its Cabernet and its Chardonnay, too. And I haven't minded saying so.

I also don't mind saying that in recent years I've noticed troubling inconsistencies in its wines, with more off bottles than I care to recall. And this disappointing trend began even before lab tests indicated low levels of TCA (the chemical compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole) in some of its wines.

Three reasons come to mind for my noticing this problem: blind tasting, being a fan of the winery, and a growing awareness of off flavors in wines and what is causing them in many California wineries.

I'm not sure if I would have become so aware of the cork and TCA issues were it not for blind tasting.

I began to notice bad corks in our blind tastings in the 1980s. Back then wines from all over the world were reviewed by our tasting panel in San Francisco (we haven't used a panel now for nearly 15 years).

All of us who tasted on the panel then were initially baffled by the sudden rise in the incidence of musty, moldy qualities we began to find in many of those wines, whether they were from Burgundy, Australia, Bordeaux or Oregon. The alarming number of spoiled wines came as a shock to us then. Many of us had been drinking wine for years--collectively, even decades--and were hard-pressed to recall encountering a "corky" wine, let alone on the scale we began to detect it.

I began writing about this problem back then. Others did, too. Many people in the wine trade couldn't believe our findings.

But eventually, most people experienced bad corks. Ultimately it became apparent that faulty corks were a problem. Many had been contaminated with TCA, and some were more obviously foul than others. At low levels of TCA, otherwise rich, fruity wines simply tasted dull or muted. When producers tried to clean up the corks by soaking them in chlorine, it only made the problem worse, as mold inside the cork combined with chlorine to form a more insidious form of TCA taint that eventually spread throughout many wineries and equipment, such as oak barrels.

Being a Montelena fan and advocate made the TCA taint easier to identify because I drank the wines so frequently. The same was true, by the way, with the TCA taint in the wines of Beaulieu Vineyard, Gallo of Sonoma and Hanzell. I routinely enjoyed their wines, only to find that in recent vintages the wines tasted off.

I don't blame these wineries for what happened to their cellars and then to their wines. They are more victims of circumstance than they are inattentive or negligent vintners.

I also realize that I'm far more sensitive to TCA than most people. It's not that I've trained myself to look for TCA, or decided to go on a witch-hunt to "out" tainted cellars or wines, as some have suggested. But when you blind-taste thousands of wines each year, and retaste a significant percentage of them to confirm your first impressions, you begin to see patterns that might not be evident to those who only drink a bottle or two at dinner now and then.

The truth is, if this issue hadn't been brought to light--by me or by someone else--many more wineries and wines would likely have encountered similar problems. As I understand it, if TCA taint in cellars goes undetected, it gets progressively worse with time. And as wines age, TCA doesn't dissipate, but gets even more obvious once the fruit begins to fade.

I expect that other writers and members of the wine trade have encountered TCA in wines (and in other products, as well). But if they are not tasting blind--if they are judging a wine by its label--it is far easier to dismiss as a minor flaw, or funk, or terroir, what might be a real defect.

I fully expect three things will happen.

First, many people will buy and taste the 2001 Montelena Cabernets and pronounce them perfectly drinkable. That's because many people can only perceive TCA at high levels, or because the situation in which they tasted the wine masked rather than exposed the flaw. They may also have a vested financial interest.

Second, the debate over Montelena's wines will continue for years. Some people will conclude the wines have systemic TCA, while others may dismiss the off flavors as due to bottle variation. It's not as if bottle variation is new to the wine world. It's been around as long as wine itself. The cause isn't always clear. But it's responsible, in my view, for people having entirely different experiences with what should be the same wine.

Finally, as Montelena cleans up its cellar, as it has pledged to do, it will be in position to make the greatest wines in its history. This TCA episode has been painful, no doubt, for the winery, and also for many who have spent considerable amounts of money on wines that have problems, irrespective of how seriously you view them. But the result may ultimately be better for both Montelena and for those of us who have long loved its wines.

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