James L. Barrett, Owner of Chateau Montelena, Dies at 86

The upstart owner who changed California wine forever.


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James L. Barrett, whose fledgling Napa Valley winery shocked the wine world by producing the winning Chardonnay at the 1976 Judgment of Paris, a victory that sparked California’s wine renaissance, died on March 14. He was 86.

After serving in the Navy in Korea, then practicing law for 20 years in Los Angeles, Barrett took down his shingle and headed north, bent on turning his passion of winemaking into a vocation.

 “I decided I wanted to do something different,” said Barrett, who founded Calistoga-based Chateau Montelena in 1972. “I think it was my guardian angel that pointed me in the right direction.”

Just four years after opening, the Montelena 1973 Chardonnay—made by vintner Miljenko “Mike” Grgich—famously bested several well-known Burgundy bottles at the Paris Tasting. Barrett would later say it was “that rare privilege,” of winning that launched Montelena to fame.

While it still makes a Chardonnay, Montelena’s Cabernet Sauvignon is now the winery’s most popular and sought-after varietal.

Barrett is survived by his wife Judy, his five children and his five grandchildren. Barrett’s son, Bo, who has led Montelena as master winemaker since 1982—and will continue on as CEO—said in a statement following his father’s death, “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.  There will be no changes to the current plan.”

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