Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Mountain Winery

Paul Masson (1859-1943) is to this day one of the world's most well-known winemakers. He left his native Burgundy at the age of 19 and came to California, where he worked at the Almaden winery and vineyards, founded by Etienne Thee. In 1888 he married Charles Lefranc's daughter, and the business was retitled the Lefranc-Masson Wine Company.

Masson set out to demonstrate that his vineyards could produce a domestic Champagne that was the equal of the French. Before long his wines were winning awards, including a gold medal at the Paris Expo of 1900. With his new found fame and fortune he decided to build a new winery that he named La Cresta, on an ideal southerly slope of Table Mountain in Saratoga.

The winery's reputation was such that even with the passing of Prohibition, the Paul Masson Champagne Company was granted a limited exemption to produce champagne 'for medicinal purposes'. When Repeal eventually came Masson was in his 70s, and was eventually persuaded, cajoled or tricked (depending on who is telling the story) into selling La Cresta. It was purchased by Martin Ray who operated the winery until 1942, when it was sold to Seagrams. Ray subsequently purchased another property nearby on the same mountain and established what eventually became Mount Eden.

Under Seagrams ownership the Paul Masson brand became a mass-produced label, featuring gimmicks such as 1 litre screw-topped carafes, and famously advertised by Orson Welles. Wine production at La Cresta ceased in 1950 and though the vineyards remained they were somewhat run-down, producing less than half a ton per acre.

In the late 1950s a small ampitheater was built and the first summer concert series was held there, launching an annual tradition that continued for 30 years. Eventually the vines were dug up and what was once considered one of the greatest vineyards in the country became a car park.

In 1989 the facility was sold to a developer for $5.3M. Seagrams retained the "Paul Masson" name, so the name was changed the name to The Mountain Winery. Over the next few years the facility had a number of owners and went through bankruptcy before being purchased in 1999 by four partners including a developer, a founder of Hotmail and a former Intel exec. Together they have overseen the rebuilding and expansion of the ampitheater and the replanting of 9 acres of estate vineyards. The vineyards were installed and are managed by Jeffrey Patterson.

The winery opens for tasting most weekends, from 12-5 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There are two flights available, the 'Reserve' wines which are made from purchased fruit and the two 'Estate' wines. Each flight costs $10, or $18 to try both. The reserve wines are priced in the mid $20s, with the Estates priced at $39 and $45. Given those prices the tasting fees do seem somewhat excessive. All the wines are made by Jeffrey Patterson at his Mount Eden facility, which allows the Santa Cruz Mountains wines to use the Estate designation.

2007 Estate Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
Nose shows cider, oak and peach. Rich apple and lemon flavours. Lightly oaked, with firm acidity. 90 $39

2007 Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains
The nose is complex, with smoke, black cherry, raspberry and spice. On the palate it's a little austere and tannic. There's good cherry fruit and nice tannins. Needs a couple of years. 91 $45

2007 Reserve Chardonnay, Monterey County
Light lemon and lime nose, with some vanilla. Tart citrus flavours, nice acidity and minerality. Pleasant, though not particularly complex. 87 $26

2006 Reserve Merlot, Sonoma County
A big nose with smoke, black plum and brambles. Smooth and oaky with some tart black fruit. Dusty, bitter tannins on the finish 86 $22

2007 Reserve Syrah, Napa Valley
Lovely nose. Heavily floral with black fruit and soy sauce. In the mouth there's lots of good savoury fruit. Overall it lacks the structure for ageing but is very tasty now. 89 $22

2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Smoky oak hides the brambly fruit on the nose. The palate has plenty of sweet blackcurrant fruit and an oaky finish. 87 $27

Have you tried the Mountain Winery wines? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.