Château Montelena owner Jim Barrett dies

California wine pioneer James L Barrett, owner of Château Montelena in the Napa Valley, has died aged 86.

A life well lived: Jim Barrett

A life well lived: Jim Barrett

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.

Bill Pullman as Jim Barrett and Chris Pine as Bo Barrett in the 2008 film Bottle Shock

Bill Pullman as Jim Barrett and Chris Pine as Bo Barrett in the 2008 film Bottle Shock

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.

Château Montelena

Château Montelena

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.”

Bo Barrett, who is married to Heidi Peterson Barrett, maker of the inaugural vintage of cult California wine Screaming Eagle, has taken on the role of CEO.

In addition to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Château Montelena also makes Zinfandel and Riesling.

2 Responses to “Château Montelena owner Jim Barrett dies”

  1. Alfredo says:

    Dear Mrs. Judy and Family,

    I had the pleasure of meeting you and your lovely family during a visit with our beloved Father William B. Wasson.

    I heard the sad news of the irreparable loss of your beloved husband Mr. James,
    I am so sorry for the physical loss of your loving and caring husband,
    he remains in our prayers and thoughts. May Mr. Barrett
    rest in peace in the arms of Our Heavenly Father. He will forever
    remain in our children’s hearts.

    May the Barret Family find the peace and comfort in our Lord, stay
    united and strong.

    Sincerely Yours,

    Alfredo Benitez
    NPHI Country Liaison

  2. HOWARD JACOBS says:

    Bo, I had the pleasure of learning what an exacting man your father could be. as his distributor in nj for many many years. I learned about his values and learned how to bend to his view because he convinced me that fine wine had the potential to add great value to our business. Reitman industries prospered as dio its successor & because of the strategy that your father outlined to me over the many conversations we held. I will miss his wisdom and guidance and our visits every time I came to the valley. words are futile at a time like this but how fortunate that you and Heidi are there to carry on his ideas via your own stellar professional reputations….

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