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They said it on Facebook: The origins of that 1973 Montelena Chardonnay

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While researching an upcoming article in Wine Enthusiast, I asked my Facebook friends if anyone knew the source of the grapes that went into the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which took first place among white wines in the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting.

Good old Facebook! My friends dutifully replied. I cannot myself vouch for the accuracy of their comments, but they sound plausible, to one degree or another. The strongest-sounding claim, from multiple people, is that a portion of the grapes came from the Bacigalupi Vineyard, which is in the northeastern part of Russian River Valley, hard by the entrance to Dry Creek Valley and thus one of the warmest places in the RRV appellation.

This claim also is supported by an article that appeared last June in Wine Business.com, in which Helen Baclgalupi says the old block, which still exists, now is called the Paris Tasting Block. Another of my Facebook respondents, Rich Reader, says Bacigalupi accounted for 85% of the Chardonnay, a claim that is problematic given Katie Bacigalupi’s statement that “Our family supplied 40% of the Chardonnay grapes that were used to produce the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the 1976 Paris Tasting.”

Harry Wetzel, of the Alexander Valley Vineyards family (and thus in a position to know), adds that “a significant portion [of the Montelena Chardonnay] was from the Alexander Valley,” although he does not elaborate as to where in Alexander Valley. However, another Facebook respondent, Bob Foster, attached this link, which says that, in addition to the Bacigalupi grapes, “about 20 tons [came] from Henry Dick in Alexander Valley…and the remainin 5 tons from Napa Valley growers John Hanna and Lee Paschich.” I’d never heard of “Henry Dick,” but another Facebook commenter, Nicole Carter, wrote that “The other source was Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay (owned by Ron and Kris Dick) part of Chateau st Jean single vineyard series since 1974.” And certainly, those old Belle Terre Chardonnays, produced by the great Richard Arrowood at St. Jean, were famous wines in their day.

Who were John Hanna and Lee Paschich? I don’t know, but yet another Facebook responder, Gabrielle Shaffer, wrote, “Pretty sure a portion came from Bill Hanna’s Oak Knoll vineyard,” which of course is (or was) in Napa Valley. Reader Whitney Yates agrees. “Some of those grapes from the ’73 came from the John Muir Hanna vineyard in Oak knoll. Those grapes have been in every vintage of Montelena since.” I’m not familiar with that vineyard, but Practical Winery & Vineyard reported, back in 2006, that Montelena “leases a 55-acre vineyard in the Oak Knoll District at the base of Mt. Veeder near Dry Creek Road, where mostly Chardonnay grapes are grown.” And “the hands-on manager at Oak Knoll is Bill Hanna.”

So it would appear that famous ’73 Montelena Chardonnay was a blend of three vineyards, at least: Bacigalupi, Belle Terre and Hanna. An interesting combination; perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to get Mike Grgich to weigh in on how and why he decided on that particular cépage. I imagine the Oak Knoll provided the backbone of structure and acidity that Bacigalupi, in itself, did not, although those Belle Terre Chards always had a graceful tartness. On the other hand, Belle Terre would have contributed the layers of opulent tropical fruits that lifted up Hanna’s minerals and herbs. As for Bacigalupi, that vineyard today is far better known for Zinfandel and Pinot Noir than for Chardonnay, although I did review a Gary Farrell 2011 Bacigalupi Chard, gave it a respectable 91 points, and praised its “deliciously ripe” flavors. That wine also was (probably) far oakier than the ’73 Montelena Chard.

History is a wonderful thing, but it’s protean (an adjective derived from the Greek god Proteus, who could change his appearance at will; protean thus means “readily changeable, capable of taking on different shapes and forms”). This makes history, which is among the more fallible of the social sciences, particularly subject to loss, distorted memory, bias and derangement. The Internet clearly is a two-sided blade: It helps to preserve facts (forever, as it turns out), but it also enshrines as “fact” things that may not actually be true; and their appearance in digital form (“It says so right here on my computer”) may lend them the appearance of truth, even when they’re false. On balance, though, first-hand accounts (like those of the Bacigalupis) are the most reliable verifications we have.

The case of the ’73 Montelena Chardonnay also shows that a blended wine–indeed, a two-county, three-appellation blend–can be as great as, and potentially better than, a vineyard-designated one. Did the surprised French judges in Paris, in that May of 1976, know that the winner was a mongrel? Their humiliation at being bested by California would have been all the sharper, with the understanding that this upstart New World Chardonnay did not even possess the prestige of terroir, the way their own Meursault Charmes Roulot (which took second place) did.

  1. Check the Williams selyem website… Seems I remember watching a video of grower Helen Bacigalupi commenting on the source of the 1973 chardonnay grapes.

  2. Janet Trefethen says:

    Steve,

    I have always been told that a portion of those grapes came from the Oak Knoll District; from Hanna.

    We’ll let Mike G. have the last say -

    Janet

  3. John Bacigalupi told me the following: 6 acres of Wente selection were planted on St George rootstock in 1964 and field budded in 1965. The initial harvests were sent to Seghesio in Healdsburg for bulk wine production. In 1973, Mike Grgich came to the Bacigalupi’s house and asked to buy some Chardonnay. Grgich made 1,800 cases of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay using 20 tons of grapes from Henry Dick in Alexander Valley, 14 tons of grapes from the Bacigalupi family, and the remaining 5 tons from Napa Valley growers John Hanna and Lee Paschich. The original weight tag from 1973 is proudly displayed in the Bacigalupi’s tasting room (14.165 tons at $815 a ton). Although the results of the Judgment of Paris were widely publicized, the vintners in Napa Valley downplayed the fact that the Chardonnay grapes came primarily from Sonoma County. Grgich never sourced Sonoma County fruit again. Bacigalupi fruit did not receive significant recognition until several years later, when the 1975 Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay from Bacigalupi fruit was said by many to be the best Chardonnay that Chateau St. Jean ever made. The Bacigalupis still have the 4-acre “Paris Tasting Block” which is sold to Rudd for their Bacigalupi bottling.

  4. States Alexander Valley (along with Napa Valley) right on the front label. Mike Grgich
    will indeed have to weigh in, perhaps even Stephen Spurrier would know.

  5. Regina Lutz says:

    Very interesting NV&Sonoma wine trivia! You should write a weekly wine trivia question on your blog, Steve. Bet you’d get some fun responses…and we’d all learn a thing or two!

  6. Jim Frediani says:

    Lee Paschich owned a company named Shades in Calistoga and owned a small vineyard on Pickett Road in Calistoga between our place and the Araujos (well, no longer the Araujos, but what we used to refer
    to as part of the Pickett ranch). Don’t know where he had any Chardonay planted, but don’t recall seeing any off of Pickett Road.
    A small block of Zinfandel he had on the NW corner of Pickett and Rosedale used to go to Montalena as well. He passed away a number of years ago.

    Bill and Claudia Hanna are great people and you should make the effort to get to know them.

  7. We love the history being pieced together, here is the final
    answer–vineyard percentages for the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay:

    39% Belle Terre (Alexander Valley)
    35% Bacigalupi (Westside Road, Sonoma)
    23% John Muir Hanna (Oak Knoll Dist. of Napa Valley)
    3% Lee Paschich (Calistoga, Napa Valley)

    The John Muir Hanna Vineyard (known as JMH) has been in every bottling of
    our Chardonnay, the current 2011 release marking our 40th vintage.

  8. rick golobic says:

    My great grandmother’s maiden name was Mary Paschich. Leland (Lee)Paschich was her nephew, my dad’s second cousin, which is why I read this with interest.
    According to “A California Companion to Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Wine Making from the Mission Period to the Present, by Charles Sullivan and Hugh Johnson”, Leland Paschich bought Chateau Montelena in 1968, then partnered with Jim Barrett and Ernest Hahn around 1971. Mike Grgich was Hired in 1972.
    According to my father, Leland always asserted that some of the grapes in the “judgement of Paris” Chardonnay were from his vineyard. Unfortunately, I don’t know the location. Mike Grgich probably does.
    I was in the tasting room at Chateau M a couple of weeks ago and casually brought this up, and it seemed like a forbidden subject. Apparently there is still a significant rift between the Barretts and Mr. Grgich. Leland passed away in 1993, but I’m sure there are still plenty of old timers who remember him.
    It is interesting to note that the Time magazine article on the CM web site refers to Jim Barrett as the general manager and part owner, yet in the history of the winery on the same site, no mention is made of the other partners. I wonder why.
    Ferreting out the facts regarding grape sourcing and the relationships between the partners, growers and wine maker might provide for some very interesting reading. Intriguing.
    Mr. Heimoff, you are a talented writer, how about digging up some details?

  9. Lloyd Martel says:

    Hey Steve This topic,especially use of facebook friends, leads me back to a question I asked you in the past. Maybe others can help me here. What were the first clones and rootstocks used for the first 1982 Opus One cabernet planting? thanks, Lloyd Martel

    r

  10. Lloyd, OMG I don’t know. I”m sure the winery can help you!

  11. Perhaps this is for the wine trivia department: Hanna is owned and farmed by the great grandson of John Muir–http://www.muir-hanna.com/HTML/AboutMHV.html

  12. Chuck Hayward says:

    According to a family newsletter written in 2009, “For the past decade Rudd has purchased the famed Paris tasting block of Chardonnay and produced a vineyard designate under their label.” It seems that this bottling has been discontinued by the winery as it is not listed on their site.

  13. The original Paris Block Chardonnay planting at Goddard Ranch, is the source of cuttings the Bacigalupis have taken and grafted them over to a new planting, releasing the first Bacigalupi Chardonnay from the old Wente clones in the 2011 vintage. The new label is similar to the original Bacigalupi label that began as a collaboration between the Bacigalupi family and the neighboring Belvedere Winery. The current name, John Tyler Wines, is being transitioned to Bacigalupi Wines.

    The Rudd Oakville Estate Bacigalupi Chardonnay is the only wine until 2009 that the winery produced from purchased grapes and the 2008 vintage was the ninth release. Beginning with the 2009 vintage, the Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay was bottled under the Edge Hill label by Rudd. Edge Hill was considered one of the finest wine estates in Napa Valley until it ceased production in 1907. Inspired by this legacy, Leslie Rudd has directed a restoration of this historic property and now handcrafts a limited production of select wines using exceptional grapes from heritage vineyard sites. The Edge Hill Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay is very limited in production and priced around $100. It is one of the greatest Chardonnays produced in California bar none. The website is http://www.edgehill.com.

  14. “the first 1982 Opus One cabernet planting”

    Llloyd,

    I can’t tell you what went into the ground at Opus One, but the first vintage was 1979, released at the same time as the subsequent 1980, packed in branded laydown six bottle wood boxes. I believe it was 4 and 2, respectively.

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