Jim Barrett, the proprietor of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, whose chardonnay shocked the world with a first-place showing at the Judgment of Paris competition in 1976, died Thursday in San Francisco. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his son Bo, who now runs Montelena.
The winning wine, a 1973 chardonnay, was among the first wines that Barrett made after his family bought the Montelena property. At the Paris tasting, a celebrated one-time event organized by a British wine merchant, a group of French judges picked it as the best white wine, over several well-known white Burgundies, helping to win recognition for the expanding California wine industry.
Although the tasting soon became the stuff of legend — it was the subject of a book and the 2008 film “Bottle Shock,” in which Bill Pullman played Barrett — it was less meaningful to Barrett himself, his son said.
“It rocketed us to fame, but that was for the chardonnay, which he was just making for the cash flow,” Bo Barrett said. “His real aim was for the estate cabernet to work. It did help us get the estate cab going.”
Montelena eventually became best known for its long-lived, structured cabernet. Along with Heitz Wine Cellars, Mayacamas Vineyards, the Robert Mondavi Winery and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (another winner at the Paris tasting), it was among Napa Valley’s select until a new generation of winemakers eclipsed them in the 1990s with their plush, powerful wines.
Though these new cult cabernets won high praise from critics and were sold for hundreds of dollars a bottle, the Barretts essentially stuck with the style they loved.
In 2008, the family announced that it was selling Montelena to the owner of Cos d’Estournel, a leading Bordeaux producer in St.-Estephe. But the sale fell through. “We found out we were really good at agriculture, but maybe not at making money,” Bo Barrett said.
This signaled a transition for his father, Bo said: “He was able to let go mentally of the Jim Barrett Montelena and let the transition go forward to me and my team.”
James Leonard Barrett was born on Nov. 8, 1926, in Chicago, the son of John Barrett and the former Margaret O’Neill. He grew up in Los Angeles. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a law degree from Loyola Marymount University, and served in the Navy during the Korean War.
He practiced law for 20 years before moving to Napa Valley in 1972 to open a winery.