Château Montelena owner Jim Barrett dies18th March, 2013 by Lucy Shaw
California wine pioneer James L Barrett, owner of Château Montelena in the Napa Valley, has died aged 86.
His son Bo Barrett said he died on Thursday 14 March of “a life well-lived.”
“He was a tough and loving man who will be greatly missed at home, at the winery and throughout the Napa Valley,” Bo said in a statement.
Known to everyone as Jim, in 1972 Barrett founded the Calistoga winery, which was originally built in 1888, rescuing it from neglect and dilapidation.
Four years later it shot to international fame when its 1973 Chardonnay beat a number of top white Burgundies to win first place among the whites in the historic Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976 organised by wine writer Steven Spurrier.
Helping to put California on the wine map, Barrett famously told a reporter after the upset: “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”
The story of Montelena’s historic triumph was made into a film in 2008 – Bottle Shock – starring Bill Pullman as Barrett and Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier.
In 2010, one of the last bottles of the 1973 Chardonnay was sold at a London auction for £7,419.
Born in LA in 1926, Barrett served in the navy during World War II. On his return, he graduated from UCLA in 1946 and went on to complete a law degree at Loyola Marymount University.
When war broke out in Korea he was recalled and served as a lieutenant on a submarine. When the war was over, he built a successful legal practice, but dreamt of starting a winery.
In 1972, Barrett bought the old stone Château Montelena property in Calistoga, at the time covered in overgrown vineyards and in serious need of attention.
He cleared and replanted the original vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon vines, hired Mike Grgich as winemaker and released his first wines that same year.
While his Cabernet vines matured, Barrett focused on Chardonnay made from purchased grapes, with the success of the 1973 Chardonnay at the Judgement of Paris tasting turning Château Montelena into a household name.
The winery’s inaugural Cabernet Sauvignon was released in 1978, and has since become one of the most revered Old World-style Cabernets made in the Napa Valley.
Bo was made winemaker in 1982, but Barrett remained actively involved in the day-to-day running of the winery.
In addition to Montelena, Barratt worked hard championing the Napa Valley and the Californian wine industry, serving as president of the Napa Valley Vintners in its early years.
In 2008, he signed an agreement to sell Montelena to Michel Reybier, owner of Château Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux, reportedly for over US$120 million. But when the global economy floundered, the sale fell through.
Bo will continue to run the family-owned winery, staying true to his father’s vision.
“He has prepared a succession plan which will ensure the winery stays in our family for as many decades going forward as we have enjoyed during his life,” said Bo, adding, “Château Montelena has a wonderful future.”
In addition to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Château Montelena also makes Zinfandel and Riesling.