James L. Barrett dies at 86; pioneering Napa vintner

In this file photo, Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena, holds a bottle of the 1973 Chardonnay in Calistoga, Calif.
In this file photo, Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena, holds a bottle of the 1973 Chardonnay in Calistoga, Calif.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

James L. Barrett, a pioneering Napa Valley vintner who stepped onto the world stage in a big way in 1976 when his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won a prestigious Paris tasting, has died. He was 86.

Barrett died Thursday in San Francisco, according to family spokeswoman Kristen Reitzell. The cause was not given.

An attorney and senior partner at a Torrance law firm, Barrett decided to leave his practice, move to Napa Valley and devote himself full time to Chateau Montelena, the historic estate he and a group of investors had bought in 1972. Founded in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs in Calistoga, the winery had been non-operational since the early 1900s, its stone chateau abandoned, the vineyards neglected. The first few years Barrett commuted from Los Angeles to the Napa Valley in his airplane.


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Chateau Montelena — and California wine — burst onto the scene in 1976 at the famous tasting now known as “The Judgment of Paris,” when California wines were pitted against French wines in a blind tasting organized by the Paris-based British wine merchant Steven Spurrier to celebrate America’s bicentennial. The list of judges was later described by Time magazine as “an oenophile’s Who’s Who.”

To the astonishment of the French experts, California wines won in both white and red categories. The wine that beat out four white Burgundies and five other California Chardonnays was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay crafted by Barrett’s winemaker and partner Mike Grgich. (Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon won the reds.) Barrett famously quipped about his win, “Not bad for some kids from the sticks.” The French cried foul, but the Americans won fair and square.

The story was the basis for the 2008 film “Bottle Shock, “ in which actor Bill Pullman played Jim Barrett.

Grgich, who will be 90 in April, remembers signing the contract to join Chateau Montelena in 1972. “The five years I spent at Chateau Montelena were the best of my life,” said Grgich, who had been working for Robert Mondavi and later founded his own winery, Grgich Hills.

Six years after the historic tasting, in 1982, Barrett ceded the winemaking duties to his son Bo, who worked with Grgich in the early years. His son continued the Montelena style of elegant Chardonnays and rich, structured Cabernet Sauvignons with much lower alcohol than the big bruisers that win high scores from wine critics today.

Barrett remained actively involved in the winery as chief executive and general partner until his death. In a statement, the company said that the winery will stay in the family and that Bo Barrett will continue as winemaker and chief executive.

James L. Barrett was born Nov. 8, 1926, in Chicago to Irish immigrants John and Margaret Barrett, who moved their family to Los Angeles in the 1930s. One of Barrett’s first jobs was selling newspapers on a street corner. As a member of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir, he appeared in many movies and radio programs.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1946 and a law degree from Loyola University of Law in 1951. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946. Barrett also participated in the Korean War as a Navy lieutenant aboard a submarine. He went on to found the law firm of Barrett, Stearns, Collins, Gleason and Kinney in Torrance in 1957. He was the firm’s senior partner for years, then his life took a different turn.

He fell hard for wine.

Piero Selvaggio of Valentino remembers Barrett, whom he considered a friend, as one of his first customers at the Santa Monica restaurant. He started coming on his own, then began bringing in associates and his fellow law partners. One day he showed up with a bottle of wine — his wine, the 1972 Chateau Montelena. Selvaggio had no idea Barrett had a winery. The Chardonnay impressed him and from that day Chateau Montelena has always been on the wine list at Valentino.

Today Chateau Montelena produces 42,000 cases of wine. While its fame may have been eclipsed by the latest wave of cult Napa Valley Cabernets, the wines are still solid and true to the style laid down more than 40 years ago.

Barrett is survived by his wife of 33 years, Judy; his children from a previous marriage, Stephanie, Bo, Michael, Kevin and Gabriela; and five grandchildren.