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November 26, 2009

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Napa wine maker who beat France

IT'S not easy to pigeonhole wine maker Bo Barrett - he dresses like a Texan, talks slowly like a Montanan and drinks like an Irishman.

But American actor Chris Pine managed to capture the spirit of the Californian born and bred in "Bottle Shock" (2008), the story of how the Barrett family's Chardonnay trounced all comers from France at the famous 1976 tasting, the so-called "judgment of Paris."

It's underdog versus powerhouse stuff, and in true Hollywood style Barrett gets all the girls, which he insists did not happen.

"I wish that was true but that wasn't," jokes Barrett who was in Shanghai last week to introduce his Chateau Montelena wines to the Grape Wall of China.

Luckily, for Chateau Montelena, Hollywood has done half of the marketing, reviving a 30-year-old claim to fame for their Chardonnay.

But Barrett says it's the Cabernets that are the winery's strength.

Meet the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes come from 85 hectares of Chateau Montelena's Napa Valley vineyards. The land is unique, a patch where volcanic, sedimentary and alluvial soils all exist, to give the Cabernet its characteristic rich, earthy-berry taste.

The Estate Cabernet tastes just fine now, but give it a few years and it will taste great. It's a versatile wine which works well as a sipper or with red meat and duck.

Looking for something a little kinder on the wallet? Then try the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromas range from dark cherry to sweet chocolate and leather but for all the fuss it's a really versatile wine that pairs well with a number of meat dishes like hong shao rou (red-braised pork), a Shanghai delicacy.

So what of the triumphant Chardonnay? Chateau Montelena has stuck to the same winning recipe for the past 30 years, and while wine makers and technology have changed, their philosophy has remained constant.

The fresh fruit pops out of the glass right from the first whiff. On the palate it tastes refreshing and has a lingering finish.

Barrett says this pure fruit flavor comes from using really ripe fruit, and picking the grapes at night when they taste the best.

It is very drinkable, crisp and fresh, and would be delightful to sip chilled on a hot summer's day.

Chardonnay pairs well with seafood, cold vegetables and tofu dishes, bringing out the delicate flavors.

It was Barrett and his wine maker wife Heidi's first trip to China, but coincidentally they have their own piece of China in their California backyard - Jade Lake and the Chinese gardens that surround it.

Before Barrett's father James owned the property, it was owned by Chinese immigrants Yort and Jeanie Frank who bought it in 1958 as a peaceful spot for retirement.

Frank's pet name for his wife was Jade, and in 1963 he built Jade Lake along with two Chinese pavilions, as an expression of his love for her.

Barrett says that in part his China tour is a tribute to the colorful history of Chateau Montelena.

Montelena wines can be purchased from Napa Reserve (383 Weihai Road). They can also be found at the Park Hyatt, the Peninsula and Puli hotels.


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