Wine world loses a good friend

I considered Jim Barrett somewhat of a friend even though I never got to meet him.
Barrett, the owner of Chateau Montelena Winery in Napa Valley, died last week at the age of 86.

Jim Barrett, the owner of Napa Valley's Chateau Montelena, died last week. He was 86.

Fifteen months ago I made a pilgrimage to Chateau Montelena, located at the base of Mt. Saint Helena in Calistoga, with the express purpose of meeting Barrett. An attorney-turned-wine producer, Barrett purchased 254 acres in 1972 and basically started from scratch to revive the property.
Barrett and his son Bo were immortalized in the 2008 movie Bottle Shock. It’s a fictionalized account of George M. Taber’s wonderful book, Judgment of Paris, when Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay bested the best French Burgundies in a blind competition. Taber, a Time magazine correspondent, wrote about the 1976 competition’s shocking result. It electrified the wine world and suddenly turned attention to California’s entrepreneurial winemakers. The rest is history.
The truth behind the movie is that Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay didn’t come from grapes grown on the property. Barrett purchased them from other sources to generate wine revenue while he replanted vines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. Barrett’s best decision was in hiring a young Croatian from Canada as his winemaker. Mike Grgich, who made the Paris winning-wine, went on to become one of California’s greatest vintners. Grgich isn’t even mentioned in the movie.
Barrett was 84 at the time and ailing a bit when I visited Chateau Montelena with my wife, the Wine Goddess, in October 2012. I was told that while Barrett still showed up to work every day, he stayed mostly in the business office. Leaving the glorious wine-tasting room, we passed by the administrative building and I told the Wine Goddess I was going to take a shot at introducing myself to Mr. Barrett. She urged me not to do it, that I’d probably wind up in jail. I stepped inside anyway. A tall, pleasant man greeted me and asked if I was lost. I showed him Taber’s book in my hands and asked if Mr. Barrett was available to sign the book. Taking the book, he told me to wait where I stood. A minute later he returned. “Mr. Barrett apologizes that he can’t see you, he’s on the phone, but he asked to know your first name,” the man said.
“It’s Jim,” I replied. “I’m from Lowell, Massachusetts.”
He thanked me and said he’d be a right back.
On his return he handed me the book. The title page was signed, “To Jim, Best Wishes, From Jim Barrett.”
It was a nice gesture. I thanked the man and walked outside into the sunlight and showed the Wine Goddess.
“Did you meet him?,” she asked.
“No, he was on the phone, probably setting up another Paris wine competition,” I replied.
We walked toward the beautiful Jade Gardens and fish pond on the grounds.
“What a peaceful place. I could live here and make wine all day long,” said the Wine Goddess. I kissed her for the thought.
If you haven’t seen Bottle Shock, you should. It’s entertaining and ends on a high note. Actor Bill Pullman plays Jim Barrett, an uptight perfectionist and divorced parent struggling to make a go of it crafting a quality wine. There’s tension between Barrett and his happy-go-lucky son Bo.
In real life, Barrett, who had five children, and Bo, got along just fine. Bo is the only sibling who remains at Chateau Montelena. He’s the winemaker.
Chateau Montelena wines are among my favorites. The 2010 Chardonnay is exquisite, with a creamy texture and lush apple, melon and peach tastes. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is deliciously smooth and complex. The Wine Goddess and I celebrated our most recent wedding anniversary at Kennebunkport’s Cape Arundel Inn with a bottle.
This weekend we’ll be paying tribute to Jim Barrett’s contributions to the world of wine. We’ll watch Bottle Shock again and uncork a 2007 Chateau Montelena cabernet that we bought the day we visited the winery.
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