Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, holds a bottle of the 1973 chardonnay that won the 1976 Paris Tasting, in 1996. Barrett died Thursday at 86.
Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, holds a bottle of the 1973 chardonnay that won the 1976 Paris Tasting, in 1996. Barrett died Thursday at 86. Eric Risberg/AP
If you've ever had a glass of California chardonnay that was not from a box, you can give a toast of thanks to Jim Barrett. The 86-year-old vintner passed away last week, after an interesting and varied life that left a lasting legacy in American wine production.
"The guy went from being an attorney to being on a submarine in the Korean War to owning one of the best American wineries," says Scott Wilson, one of the 3 Wine Guys, a podcasting trio of wine experts. "I mean it's a pretty amazing life."
When Barrett showed up in Napa Valley in the 1970s, he says, the place was hardly the lush green countryside we see today.
"It definitely was a different world than it is now," Wilson tells NPR's Don Gonyea. "I mean you drive down Napa [now] and it's winery after winery. It was actually real farm country and the Chateau Montelena had been in disarray for decades."
Barrett bought the chateau and set about transforming it. He had a lot of work ahead of him — not just to revitalize Chateau Montelena, but to defy the stereotype of domestic wines as mass-produced swill, says Wine Guy Stevo Anthony.
"In the '60s, there was a real bad connotation for wines in general," Anthony says. "We didn't think of wines from Napa or Sonoma as having any cache whatsoever."
Serious wine dealers completely ignored American products, but Barrett changed all that when his Chateau Montelena chardonnay put America on the wine map in a dramatic way.
In 1976, a British wine merchant organized a blind taste test pitting some of the up-and-coming American wines against some of the biggest names in French wines, in what became known as the Judgment of Paris.
"He thought it would be funny in our bicentennial year ... to basically put egg on our face," Anthony says. "And lo and behold we shocked the world."
Barrett's American wine took first place among the white wines, and it was a huge controversy.
"One of the judges grabbed her ballot and wanted to tear it up," Wilson says.
"I mean it was a situation where not only did the little guy beat up the bully, but ended up dating his sister as well," Anthony says. "It was awesome."
The story of this huge upset was told in the movie Bottle Shock, starring Bill Pullman as Barrett and Alan Rickman as British wine merchant Steven Spurrier.