I just received the very sad news that an icons of the Napa Valley wine industry has passed away. Napa Valley pioneer James L. Barrett helped put Napa Valley on the map when his mineral rich, citrus filled, slightly creamy and very lively 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay beat out a mix of highly acclaimed White Burgundy and other California Chardonnay at the now famous “Judgement of Paris” in 1976. It was a wine that was created under his leadership then and has remained one of the most loved wines from Napa Valley since.
As with many in the wine business, he didn’t start out there, taking a more practical route early on. Barrett attended college at UCLA than law school at Loyola Marymount University, then served in the military during the Korean War as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Nacy before starting a 20 year legal career as a Senior Partner at Barrett, Stearns, Collins, Gleason and Kinney. In 1972 he gave it all up to follow his dream and passion, believing that Napa Valley was the place that he and his family could build a world-class winery.
Barrett found the run-down Chateau on Tubbs Lane in Calistoga and knew he had found his Napa Valley home, calling it Chateau Montelena. When news of the results of the Paris Tasting reached Barrett his simple reply was, “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”
In 19882 wine making duties were turned over to Barrett’s son, Bo, with Barrett staying on as CEO and Winery Partner. I had a chance to speak with Bo last summer when he was visiting Dallas with his amazing wife, winemaker Heidi Barrett. We talked a lot about wine, and our mutual love for the big island of Hawaii, and his dad who had such a passion to create something special, that would make people happy. And how then, at age 85, he was still very involved with the winery and the day to day work. We also talked “Bottle Shock,” the 2008 film about the 1976 Paris Tasting with Bill Pulman portraying Jim Barrett and Chris Pine as a young Bo. Bo said he liked it, though it wasn’t all that accurate, except his father always was that passionate, strict and dedicated.
Bo Barrett released a statement about his father earlier today, “I join with my family to announce the sad news that my father, Jim Barrett, passed away today at the age of 86. He was a tough and loving man who will be greatly missed at home, at the winery and throughout the Napa Valley. My father bought Chateau Montelena in 1972 and has worked hard every day since to grow the best grapes and produce the best wines. My dad died of a life well lived.”