Feature

Jim Barrett, 1926–2013

The California vintner who bested the French

Jim Barrett fought in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, but his most famous victory was against the French in 1976. The California vintner’s chardonnay was the top white wine chosen in a blind tasting by a panel of Parisian wine experts. The famous “Judgment of Paris” embarrassed French winemakers and gave California’s quality-wine industry a crucial boost. 

After serving as a submariner in Korea, Barrett spent much of his postwar career working as a real estate lawyer, said the Los Angeles Times. In 1972, he “went to Napa Valley with the idea of starting a winery.” The area had been largely neglected since Prohibition, but he restored an “empty stone château” named Montelena, and decided to make a chardonnay—a comparatively low-maintenance variety—while waiting for his cabernet sauvignon vines to mature.

That chardonnay became famous just a few years later, said Bloomberg Businessweek, when wine merchant Steven Spurrier hosted a blind tasting of French and California wines in Paris to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. It was done half in jest; California’s wine industry was then “dominated by cheap jug wines,” and Spurrier assumed the French would win handily. But of the six French burgundies and four California chardonnays, Barrett’s 1973 Montelena chardonnay was voted the winner by a jury made up of the “crème de la crème of France’s oenophiles.” The “pooh-bahs of French wine” could hardly believe it, but suddenly California’s wineries had credibility. 

“The victory helped launch both California’s modern wine industry and Montelena’s reputation,” said the San Francisco Chronicle. The tale was later turned into a movie, Bottle Shock, with Bill Pullman playing Barrett. The vintner’s winemaking operation began turning out award-winning chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, becoming a “bright star” in California’s soon crowded firmament of wineries. He handed winemaking duties over to his son in 1982, but remained active, serving as president of Napa Valley Vintners in 1986. His son, Bo, said Barrett’s cause of death was “a life well lived.”  

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