It’s a sad day for the elegantly vine peppered hills of Napa Valley as pioneer vintner James L. Barrett has passed away at the age of 86 from unknown causes. The lawyer turned wine-expert devoted his life to the Chateau Montelena estate and garnered international recognition for his vineyard’s Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Here are the facts you need to know about the man who put California wines on the world map:
1. Barrett’s Chardonnay Won World Recognition
Chateau Montelena — and California wine — burst onto the world stage in 1973 when James L. Barret’s Chardonnay was pitted against French wines in a blind test termed the “Judgement of Paris”. To the amazement of the disbelieving French wine experts, Barret’s Napa Chardonnay won in the white category. This was an incredibly important win for Napa wineries as it proved California grape quality to the world and encouraged the wave of cult Napa Valley wines enjoyed today.
2. Hollywood Told His Story
Barrett’s 1973 victory at “the Judgement of Paris” was portrayed in the 2008 American comedy-drama Bottle Shock. Barrett’s character was interpreted by Bill Pullman and it premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. The movie received mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 49 percent, based on reviews from 117 critics
3. He Abandoned a Career in Law
Barrett graduated with a BA from UCLA in 1946 and received his law degree from Loyola Law School in 1950. An attorney and senior partner at a Torrance law firm, Barrett’s real passion was always wine. Thus he 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 .Barrett reinvigorated the neglected and decrepit winery originally built in 1888 and brought it back to life. Barrett said on his profile on the Chateau Montelena webpage, “I wanted to do something to make people happy.”
4. He was in the Army
Barrett spent his early years selling news papers in Los Angeles before entering the U.S Navy during World War II. 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.
5. His Son Bo Now Manages the Estate
Six years after the historic tasting, in 1982, Barrett handed over the wine making duties to his son Bo. His son continued the Montelena style of elegant Chardonnays and rich, structured Cabernet Sauvignons with much lower alcohol than the typical blends that win high scores from wine critics today. Today Chateau Montelena produces 42,000 cases of wine.