By ERIC ASIMOV
Business WireJim Barrett, the proprietor of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, whose chardonnay shocked the world with a first-place showing at the Judgment of Paris competition in 1976, died on Thursday. He was 86.
The cause of death was “a life well lived,’’ said Bo Barrett, his son, who now runs Montelena.
The winning wine, a 1973 chardonnay, was among the first wines that Mr. Barrett made after his family bought the Montelena property. At the Paris tasting, a celebrated, one-time event organized by a British wine merchant, a group of French judges picked it as the best white wine, over several well-known white Burgundies, helping to win recognition for the burgeoning California wine industry. Although the tasting soon became the stuff of legends — the subject of a book, a film, “Bottle Shock,” released in 2008 and another that may be in the works — it was less meaningful to Mr. Barrett himself, his son said in a phone interview on Friday.
“It rocketed us to fame, but that was for the chardonnay, which he was just making for the cash flow,’’ Bo Barrett said. “His real aim was for the estate cabernet to work. It did help us get the estate cab going.’’
Montelena eventually became best known for its long-lived, structured cabernet. Along with Heitz Wine Cellars, Mayacamas Vineyards, the Robert Mondavi Winery and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (another winner atf the Paris tasting), it was among Napa Valley’s select until a new generation of winemakers eclipsed them in the 1990s with their plush, powerful wines. Though these new cult cabernets won high praise from critics and were able to charge hundreds of dollars per bottle, the Barretts essentially stuck with the style they loved.
In 2008, the family announced that it was selling Montelena to the owner of Cos d’Estournel, a leading Bordeaux producer in St.-Estèphe. But the sale fell through several months after the announcement. “We found out we were really good at agriculture, but maybe not at making money,’’ Bo Barrett said.
It signaled a transition for his father, though. “He was able to let go mentally of the Jim Barrett Montelena and let the transition go forward to me and my team,’’ Bo Barrett said. Asked what his father would most like to be remembered for, he said, “I would say, that the crazy dream worked.’’