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2001 Chateau Potelle Estate "VGS" Chardonnay, Mt. Veeder, Napa

In the espionage business, spies "cross over" or are "turned" to become double agents, working for the people they once used to spy one. When Marketta and Jean-Noël Fourmeaux first came to California, they were on an official mission from the Appellations of Bordeaux and the Northern Rhone to learn as much as possible about California wine, winemaking and winegrowing for their French employers. After 6 months, they are reported to have sent back a telegram saying "Looks good. We'll stay." And thus began Chateau Potelle.

The Fourmeaux bought a piece of property high on Mount Veeder in 1988 and immediately set to work to build a vineyard and winery on the steep elevated hillsides that were the dominant and desirable traits of their property. Influenced by the hillside vineyards of the Northern Rhone, buying land anywhere "flat" apparently was out of the question.

"We gave ourselves 5 years to find the ideal location to make wine. All the while we were searching, we had a very particular style of wine in our heads -- not overpowering, not the 1980's style of wine that you could stand a spoon up in. The foundation for any wine is where it is grown. We chose Mount Veeder because of its eastern exposure and elevation," says Marketta.

The elevation of the property puts their vines above the fog belt, giving them more sun exposure in terms of both hours per day and days per year than most of Napa Valley. The altitude also makes for cooler nights. The longer growing season caused by the geography, coupled with the high stress and low yields imposed on the vines through farming and geologic conditions, make for what the Fourmeaux believe is very unique fruit.

A truly family-run operation, Marketta serves as the winemaker while Jean-Noel manages the vineyards. Winemaking methods at Chateau Potelle are characterized as "gentle," with minimal usage of machines. Harvest, sorting and destemming are done by hand and fermentation of vineyard blocks is done separately using only natural yeasts. Wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

The estate produces Cabernet, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, a late harvest Zinfandel, a Syrah and Zinfandel from Paso Robles, and a rose wine along with this Chardonnay, which may be the only Chardonnay made on Mt. Veeder. Made from 31 year old vines that grow in 6 separate blocks, the wine is fermented separately by block slowly over nearly 4 months before spending 10 to 16 months in French oak, of which I suspect no more than 50% is new. The wines from each block, some austere, some lush, are blended to a final "assemblage" before bottling.

Tasting Notes:
This wine is a very light green gold in the glass and has a nose filled with tropical aromas of pineapple, Meyer lemon and vanilla. In the mouth it is smooth and supple, with primary flavors of pineapple and tropical fruits that linger towards a long finish that is slightly warm from alcohol. The wine is pretty nicely balanced with a good amount of acidity and a conspicuous lack of hit-you-over-the-head oak.

Food Pairing:
I think this would go perfectly with these lobster crisps in a champagne dill sauce.

Overall Score: 8.5/9

How Much?: $30

This wine is available for sale on the Internet.

Comments (4)

Steve-o wrote:
03.31.05 at 12:59 PM

Great blog! Been reading for a while, first post.

This wine review presents for me an opportunity to ask a question that's been simmering since I first saw such a score...

I know you choose a 10 point scale because, as you reasonably observe, what's the difference between a 86 and 88 wine, or a 93 and a 96? And I think that's a fair point. So from 1 to 10 is your 10 point scale.

But you've used added to that a .5 incremental system because "there's a big difference between a 7 and an 8." Which also makes sense, I'm all for it. Of course, it's now effectively a 19 point scale (for all the right reasons). Perhaps not too coincidentally, that pretty much comports with the old style 20 point (whole number) standard.

But doesn't all this collapse with your next level of fining? I'm talking, of course, about ratings like "8.5/9" As soon as you say that it's borderline between 8.5 and 9, you're arguably saying it's an 87.5. So as soon as you're splitting hairs with a wine falling in between 9 and 9.5, we're up to an effective 37 point scale...

I think you should review and rate wines any way you choose - I personally look more to your descriptions than your scores (you write highly evocative descriptions which I very much appreciate), and have even bought a couple of wines based in part on your reviews. My point is simply that ultimately, with all the gradations I've seen in the scores, is your system really so different from the 100 point Parker/WS scale (really 51 point, as no wine gets below a 50)?

Anyway, just thought I'd ask. It certainly doesn't affect the important part - the enjoyment of wine. Cheers!

Alder wrote:
03.31.05 at 1:57 PM


Thanks very much for your comments and thoughtful questions. Scoring wines is always a fun discussion. As you rightly point out, my scale is 1 to 10 (really 6 to 10 because I don’t usually bother telling people about wines that are effectively an F grade) because I don't think it's really possible or useful to split hairs between scores like 92 and 94.

As you correctly note, I also use a .5 or half point score to place wines that are definitely better than an 8 but not quite a 9. While it could seem that this puts me into close to a 20 point ranking, it really makes for about a 10 point scale since everything I score is usually between a 6 and 10.

As for the 8.5/9 perhaps my use of that is not clear enough to my readers. I'm not trying to be more exact by using the slash I'm actually trying to be more vague. What I'm trying to say is that "I think this wine could be slightly better than an 8.5" or "this wine is almost, but not quite a 9." To me that's very different than giving a score of 8.75, or 88.

So I like to think that my scoring system IS different than the traditional 100 point scale or the 20 point scale because it is purposefully more general and the differences between most of the scores are a little more broad than in other systems.

Maybe I'm fooling myself though -- that's always a possibility.

Steve-o wrote:
03.31.05 at 7:44 PM

Somehow my follow-up comments, which I spend a decent amount of time typing up, got lost in the mists of time and cyberspace. I don't feel like going into it all again so I'll sum up in short -

Your point about keeping it vague is well made - even 'big name' critic Tanzer often puts forward a range of points or throws in a + sign or a ? after the score to indicate that there is some fudge.

I guess ideally we wouldn't require quantification of qualitative information. But as people, we like it - and whatever system(s) we can come up with will have to do.

In the meantime, you've inspired me to open one of my bottles of 2001 Haut Brion this weekend. I was planning on letting them lay for at least two more years, but your experience sounds good enough that I'm going for it. If I have any useful comments, I'll post 'em under your own review!

Lisa Miller wrote:
04.11.05 at 1:25 PM

We stopped in at Chateau Potelle yesterday to taste. We weren't crazy about any of the wines there, not to mention that the Syrah they were pouring was loaded with brett.

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