James L. Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, passed away March 14. He was 86.
Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay helped put California on the wine map when it took top honors at the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, winning over a field of famous white Burgundies. "Not bad for kids from the sticks," Barrett memorably told a reporter after the upset.
Barrett was one of California’s wine pioneers. “He was a tough and loving man who will be greatly missed at home, at the winery and throughout the Napa Valley,” said his son Bo Barrett in a statement. “My dad died of a life well-lived.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1926, Jim Barrett served in the Navy during World War II. On his return he graduated from UCLA in 1946 and went on to earn a law degree at Loyola Marymount University. When war broke out in Korea he was recalled and served as a lieutenant on a submarine. After the war he built a thriving legal practice, and was senior partner at his firm for over 20 years, but he dreamed of starting a world-class winery.
In 1972, Barrett discovered the old Chateau Montelena property in Calistoga and fell in love with its stone chateau and overgrown vineyards. Deciding it would be a perfect place to start his own winery, he cleared and replanted the original vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon and refurbished the winery. He hired Mike Grgich as winemaker and released his first wines that same year. In the beginning Barrett focused on Chardonnay made from purchased grapes while his Cabernet vines matured.
With the victory in Paris and the subsequent success of the 1973 Chardonnay, Montelena became a household name. The winery released its first Cabernet in 1978, and it would go on to become
Barrett named Bo winemaker in 1982 but remained actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the winery. He also worked hard at promoting Napa Valley and the wine industry, serving as president of the Napa Valley Vintners during its early years and as director of Family Winemakers of California.
In a sign of how valuable the estate had grown, in 2008, Barrett signed an agreement to sell Montelena to Frenchman Michel Reybier, owner of Bordeaux's Château Cos-d'Estournel, reportedly for more than $120 million. But when the global economy sank, the parties backed out.
Following his passing, the Barrett family issued a statement saying that they will continue to run the winery and will stay true to his vision going forward. “He, along with the entire family, has prepared a succession plan for Chateau Montelena which will ensure the winery stays in our family for as many decades going forward as we have enjoyed during his life," said Bo Barrett. “There will be no changes to the current plan. Chateau Montelena has a wonderful future.”