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Wine icon Jim Barrett dies at 86

Chateau Montelena owner Jim Barrett, shown in this 2008 file photo, died Thursday at 86.

SCOTT MANCHESTER/Press Democrat
Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 7:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 6:54 a.m.

Jim Barrett, who stunned the wine world in 1976 when his Napa Valley chardonnay beat a lineup of French wines in a blind tasting that came to be known as the "Judgment of Paris," died Thursday at age 86.

The event, covered in a short blurb in Time magazine, vaulted Barrett's Chateau Montelena into the top rank of wineries and put Napa Valley on the map of wine lovers worldwide.

"He was a very forward-thinking man and I always admired his ability to put that forward thinking into action," said winemaker Warren Winiar-ski, whose Stags' Leap cabernet sauvignon topped a spread of French red wines at that same tasting.

"It is always wonderful to win a tasting when you're starting out," Winiarski said. "I don't think anyone knew the full extent of it; it came on very slowly."

Barrett died Thursday surrounded by family and loved ones. The cause of death was "a life well lived," said his son, Bo Barrett.

Jim Barrett, then a lawyer in Southern California, bought the decaying and long-dormant Chateau Montelena in the foothills north of Calistoga in 1972. He hired Croatian winemaker Mike Grgich, who had worked previously at Beaulieu and for the Mondavi family.

Grgich recalled Friday that Barrett had given him the freedom and support to rehab the defunct winery and apply his knowledge to the new label. The wine that eventually would win the famous Paris tasting was just their second vintage together.

"It was a very important event, not only for Napa and Sonoma but for the whole United States," said Grgich, who left Chateau Montelena in 1977 to found his own label.

Barrett was on tour in France at the time of the tasting, and he sent just a brief wire back to his winemaker to break the news of the victory. It wasn't immediately clear, however, just how important the event would be.

"I thought something big had happened, but when the New York Times called, I really realized what that meant," Grgich said, "and I was reborn."

The creation of that winning wine was the subject of the 2008 movie "Bottle Shock," which has boosted interest in Chateau Montelena and the surrounding Calistoga region to new heights, said Brian Baker, vice president of sales and marketing at the winery.

Barrett was one of a generation of winery owners that salvaged the wine industry of Napa Valley, which had been nearly destroyed by Prohibition. People like Barrett thought long-term and planned carefully to allow their children to take over, said Hugh Davies, president of nearby Schramsberg, founded in 1965 by another pioneer, his father, Jack Davies.

"I am just very, very thankful for the efforts, the really impressive efforts, they made for another generation to be here and carry on what those people started," Davies said.

Barrett's son Bo has carried on his father's work as winemaker at Chateau Montelena. The family has prepared a succession plan that will ensure the winery remains in family ownership, he said.

Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said Barrett's legacy extended beyond establishing Napa Valley wine as world class and included preserving the beauty of the county, particularly his meticulous refurbishing of the monumental Chateau Montelena building, constructed in 1882, and the surrounding vineyards.

"He didn't just make a little effort at either of those things," she said. "They were really significant, highly visible and impactful efforts."

Barrett was deeply involved in the wine industry, serving a term as president of the Napa Valley Vintners and as a director of Family Winemakers of California.

"He was a Napa Valley icon and helped to put our wine region on the map," said Linda Reiff, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners.

Barrett also was a man of great faith, active in the Catholic Church, friends and associates say. The property in Calistoga was dotted with shrines, and the annual Blessing of the Grapes ceremony at the start of crush was a major social event in the northern end of the valley.

Barrett wrote the 2010 book "A Pilgrim's Journey," examining his own faith through the perspective of modern science and the search for answers about death, judgment, heaven and hell.

"That was very much part of everything he did, every day of his life, and everything he did at the winery," Baker said.

When staff or visitors would comment on how fortunate Barrett had been in his career, Baker said, "Jim would just look them in the eye and say 'I've had a guardian angel looking after me all of my life.' "

Longtime friend Bob Pecota, who operated a winery adjacent to Chateau Montelena for 38 years, said Barrett was passionate about tennis and always was eager to get involved in fundraising projects, such as funding the Calistoga Community Pool or supporting the Calistoga High School tennis team.

Barrett and his wife, Judy, enjoyed hosting parties at their home, Pecota said, where she would cook gourmet meals.

"He was just a wonderful, feisty Irish guy: very lovable, very religious," he said. "We had a lot of fun together over the years."

Barrett was born Nov. 8, 1926, to a family of Irish immigrants in Chicago. The family later moved to Los Angeles, where he attended UCLA and earned a law degree at Loyola Law School.

He served in the Navy aboard the submarine USS Sea Devil during the Korean War. After the war, he established a law practice in Los Angeles and was senior partner of the firm Barrett, Stearns, Collins, Gleason and Kinney for more than 20 years.

Barrett is survived by his wife, Judy, and five children: Stephanie Pointer of Montana, Michael Barrett of Montana, Bo Barrett of Calistoga, Kevin Barrett of California, Gabriela Barrett-Wilson of Hawaii; their mother, Laura Barrett; and five grandchildren.

The family will have a private service, Baker said. There will be a public memorial at 11 a.m. April 2 at the Meritage Resort and Spa, 875 Bordeaux Way, Napa.

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

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