California Winemakers Press A Family Vintage

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The Family Business

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Jim Barrett was in his 40s when he made a midcareer correction: After being a lawyer "got kind of boring," he began operating a California winery in 1972.

He now runs Chateau Montelena, a 130-year-old stone structure modeled on a French chateau, with his son Bo.

In 1976, Chateau Montelena shocked the wine world when one of its chardonnays was judged superior to French wines at a grand tasting in Paris. Wine snobs were forced to admit that a Napa Valley wine could match a bottle from Europe. The competition changed the industry, and the family business became the focus of the recent movie Bottle Shock.

Chateau Montelena has passed through two generations of Barretts, and it could make it to a third. Bo Barrett's 20-year-old daughter, Chelsea, is studying winemaking in college.

"It's a thought that every father has, of course," Jim Barrett says about passing the business on to one of his five children. "And Bo's having that pleasant thought right now with respect to Chelsea."

"It's just really something that is always in your mind," he says. "Bo and I have worked together, not just as father and son, but as CEO, if you will, and winemaker, for a long, long time."

Passing The Torch

But working together wasn't always smooth. Bo Barrett says that around 1980, when he had about 10 years' experience in the cellar, he had a difference of opinion with his boss, Chateau Montelena's winemaker.

He says he told his father that the winemaker wasn't doing as good of a job as he should.

"My dad said, 'That's insubordination. You better move on, kid,' " Bo Barrett recalls. "It was a heated discussion, which ended up with me basically stomping out of there and loading up my pickup and heading down the road."

Jim Barrett says he was surprised when his son told him he was ready to take over as winemaker.

"I about fell out of my chair," Jim Barrett recalls. "I said, 'Bo ... I'm not into nepotism. I'm not firing [the winemaker] to give you the hotshot job here.' I said, 'This is a serious business.' "

And when Bo Barrett said he was leaving, his father told him that he didn't blame him.

Separate Relationships

But about a year later, Chateau Montelena's winemaker moved on.

"I had asked him; I said, 'Well, who should be the winemaker?' " Jim Barrett says. "And he said my son, Bo, should be the winemaker, and I said, 'Hey, this is a serious business.' And he says, 'No ... he's the most well-qualified; he knows the winery.' "

So, then Jim Barrett had a problem: How could he get his son back?

"I called him on the phone, and I said, 'How would you like to be a winemaker at one of the most famous wineries in California?' And he says, 'I'll think about it' and hung up."

Bo Barrett says he thought about it for a while and decided the job would be good for his career.

"I said to my dad ... 'Listen, I think this is a great opportunity for me, but we have to be very strict and separate our father-son relationship,' " he says. "That was the first discussion we had, before we talked about how much I was going to be paid."

Over the 25 years they have worked together, the two men have maintained that separation.

"It's a difficult thing, but the best way to do that is don't do anything wrong, don't get chewed out," Bo Barrett says with a laugh.

But he notes that it's certainly no fun when it comes to asking his father for a raise.

"My approach to asking for a raise is just showing a set of figures, and typically it's a [comparison] of what other people in my job are making, so it's not personal and it's not emotional," he says.

Jim Barrett adds: "We have moments where I'm furious with him and he's furious with me, but being Irish, we kiss and make up and hug each other. And it's gone on for a long time and it's been great."

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