10:48am

Tue March 26, 2013
Remembrances

Raising A Glass To Jim Barrett, Who Put American Wine On The Map

Originally published on Sat March 23, 2013 5:34 pm

If you've ever had a glass of California chardonnay that was not from a box, you can give a toast of thanks to Jim Barrett. The 86-year-old vintner passed away last week, after an interesting and varied life that left a lasting legacy in American wine production.

"The guy went from being an attorney to being on a submarine in the Korean War to owning one of the best American wineries," says Scott Wilson, one of the 3 Wine Guys, a podcasting trio of wine experts. "I mean it's a pretty amazing life."

When Barrett showed up in Napa Valley in the 1970s, he says, the place was hardly the lush green countryside we see today.

"It definitely was a different world than it is now," Wilson tells NPR's Don Gonyea. "I mean you drive down Napa [now] and it's winery after winery. It was actually real farm country and the Chateau Montelena had been in disarray for decades."

Barrett bought the chateau and set about transforming it. He had a lot of work ahead of him — not just to revitalize Chateau Montelena, but to defy the stereotype of domestic wines as mass-produced swill, says Wine Guy Stevo Anthony.

"In the '60s, there was a real bad connotation for wines in general," Anthony says. "We didn't think of wines from Napa or Sonoma as having any cache whatsoever."

Serious wine dealers completely ignored American products, but Barrett changed all that when his Chateau Montelena chardonnay put America on the wine map in a dramatic way.

In 1976, a British wine merchant organized a blind taste test pitting some of the up-and-coming American wines against some of the biggest names in French wines, in what became known as the Judgment of Paris.

"He thought it would be funny in our bicentennial year ... to basically put egg on our face," Anthony says. "And lo and behold we shocked the world."

Barrett's American wine took first place among the white wines, and it was a huge controversy.

"One of the judges grabbed her ballot and wanted to tear it up," Wilson says.

"I mean it was a situation where not only did the little guy beat up the bully, but ended up dating his sister as well," Anthony says. "It was awesome."

The story of this huge upset was told in the movie Bottle Shock, starring Bill Pullman as Barrett and Alan Rickman as British wine merchant Steven Spurrier.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONYEA: If you've ever had a glass of California chardonnay that was not from a box, you can give a toast of thanks to Jim Barrett. The 86-year-old vintner passed away last week after an interesting and varied life, leaving a lasting legacy in American wine production.

SCOTT WILSON: You know, the guy went from being an attorney to a lieutenant on a submarine in the Korean War to owning one of the best American wineries. I mean, it's a pretty amazing life.

GONYEA: That's Scott Wilson. He's one of the 3 Wine Guys, a podcasting trio of wine aficionados. He says that when Barrett showed up in Napa Valley in the 1970s, the place was hardly the lush green countryside we see today.

WILSON: It definitely was a different world than it was now. I mean, you drive down Napa, and it's winery after winery. It was actually a real farm country. And the Chateau Montelena had been in disarray for decades.

GONYEA: Barrett bought the chateau and set about transforming it. He spoke about those early days with some of his pioneering comrades in a 2011 panel for the Napa Valley Vintners, a winemakers' trade association.

JIM BARRETT: I was a lawyer for 28 years putting frowns on people's faces. Now, I put smiles, see? And that's how I got into the wine business. Came up here to the valley, looked at it - and I'd been a city boy all my life - and I said, hot damn. This is fantastic. Things grow out here. It isn't concrete, you know, and it's not high buildings.

GONYEA: Barrett had a lot of work ahead of him, not just to revitalize Chateau Montelena, but to defy the stereotype of domestic wines as mass-produced swill, says the other Wine Guy podcaster we spoke with, Stevo Anthony.

STEVO ANTHONY: In the 60s, there was a real bad connotation for wines in general. We didn't think of wines as - from California or Napa or Sonoma as having any cache, whatsoever.

GONYEA: Serious wine dealers completely ignored American products. But Barrett changed all that when his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay put America on the wine map in a dramatic way. This is the big wine competition.

WILSON: Yes. This is the judgment in Paris in May, 26 1926.

GONYEA: A British wine merchant organized a blind taste test putting some of the up-and-coming American wines against French wines.

ANTHONY: He thought it would be kind of funny in our bicentennial year to kind of...

GONYEA: 1976, uh-huh.

ANTHONY: ...1976, yeah - to basically kind of put egg on our face. And lo and behold, we shocked the world.

WILSON: And this was up against some of the big names in French wine - first growths like Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Haut-Brion...

ANTHONY: Romanee-Conti...

WILSON: Yeah.

ANTHONY: ...from Burgundy. I mean, the best of Bordeaux, the best of Burgundy were there to make us look bad.

GONYEA: But rather than look bad, Barrett's American wine took first place among the white wines.

WILSON: And it was a huge controversy. One of the judges grabbed her ballot and wanted to tear it up. And they based the movie "Bottle Shock" off it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BOTTLE SHOCK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) (Foreign language spoken)

ANTHONY: I mean, it was a situation where not only did the little guy end up beating up the bully but then he ended up, you know, dating his sister as well. It was awesome.

GONYEA: How important was it that day that Jim Barrett come along? You know, how different might things be if he had just stayed in his Chicago law firm all those years ago instead of heading out to California?

WILSON: We might be drinking French wine.

ANTHONY: Exactly. Or Italian.

WILSON: Or Australian, yeah.

ANTHONY: Yes.

GONYEA: Or gin and tonics.

WILSON: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

ANTHONY: Or - yeah. Yeah.

GONYEA: Well, we raise a glass for him today.

WILSON: Cheers.

ANTHONY: Cheers.

GONYEA: Scott Wilson and Stevo Anthony are two of the 3 Wine Guys podcasting trio. Thank you both for spending some time with us today.

WILSON: Thanks, Don. Have a good day.

ANTHONY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.