Jim Barrett & Me

The Montelena owner was more than his most famous moment.


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Napa Valley vintner Jim Barrett, who died in March at age 86, was one hell of a pioneer, a gruff lawyer-turned-winery owner who fell into the crosshairs of history, helping put California wine on the world map at the 1976 Judgment of Paris with his winning 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.

Sympathetically portrayed by Bill Pullman in the 2008 movie, Bottleshock, the real Barrett could be more, well, direct in his opinions, as I found out when I called him on the 30th anniversary of his Judgment victory.

“Grgich is a damn good winemaker,” he barked at me in 2005, referring to winemaker Mike Grgich, who made Montelena’s top-scoring Chardonnay. In even more, let’s call it colorful language, he ranted on, saying the winemaker alone doesn’t produce the wine. “At best, he’s the first violin in an orchestra,” he said. “There’s so much credit to go around.”

Surprisingly, Barrett charged $6 a bottle for that 1973 Chardonnay and didn’t raise the price for years. Ultimately he felt wine should be balanced, parroting real estate’s “location, location, location,” in his wine mantra of “balance, balance, balance.”

Though he didn’t get along with everyone, the cantankerous Barrett did conceal a soft side, ending our last call with the boast that now that he’d made it big in Napa Valley, his aim in later years was to “put smiles on people’s faces.”

He sure brought one to mine.

Rest in peace, Jim. 

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