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James L. Barrett Dies: California Vintner Stunned Wine World

By Michael Mullins   |   Wednesday, 20 Mar 2013 08:38 AM

Pioneering Napa Valley vintner James L. Barrett, known worldwide after his Chateau Montelena chardonnay won a prestigious Paris tasting in 1976, has died. He was 86.

In 1972 the former attorney left his law practice and relocated to California's Napa Valley where he and a group of investors purchased the historic estate of Chateau Montelena. Barrett subsequently devoted himself to breathing new life into the 254-acre winery which had been abandoned for decades before Barrett's arrival.

Just four years after purchasing the winery, it competed in a head-to-head competition, along with other American wines, against French wines in what was known as "The Judgment of Paris," in which wine connoisseurs participated in a blind taste test to judge the best wines in each category.

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California wines beat out their French competitors in both white and red categories, with judges awarding top honors to either the Chardonnays from Chateau Montelena or Chalone Winery – another California wine producer.

One wine in particular, the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay, beat out four white Burgundies and five other California chardonnays, the Washington Post reported.

After the historic win, Barrett famously quipped: "Not bad for some kids from the sticks."

The remarkable underdog victory was later showcased in the 2008 film "Bottle Shock," in which Barrett was played by actor Bill Pullman.

Barrett's partner at the Chateau Montelena winery, Mike Grgich, who will turn 90 next month, recalled the 1972 purchase of the Chateau Montelena in the Post, saying, "The five years I spent at Chateau Montelena were the best of my life."

In 1982, Barrett's son Bo took over the winemaking duties at the winery and continued his father's legacy of winning high praise from wine connoisseurs in competitions from around the world.

Despite handing over the reins to his son, Barrett remained actively involved in the winery until his death, operating as chief executive and general partner.

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Born to Irish immigrants in Chicago, Barrett was a former U.S. Navy submariner and "an incurable romantic," according to Chateau Montelena's website, which featured another famous quote from the late vintner. When asked why he purchased and devoted himself to the winery, he said, "I wanted to do something to make people happy."

Related stories:

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Illinois Proves Ripe for New Crop of Wineries

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Pioneering California vintner James L. Barrett, known worldwide after his Chateau Montelena chardonnay won a prestigious Paris tasting in 1976, has died. He was 86.
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