Mar 182013
Musings on the death of Chateau Montelena’s Jim Barrett
and the movie Bottle Shock
Courtesy of Chateau Montelena

Courtesy of Chateau Montelena

We were saddened this weekend to learn of the death of Jim Barrett, founder – Chateau Montelena, just outside Calistoga in the northern end of Napa Valley. Barrett was 86 years old. His son, Bo, who now runs Montelena said of his father; “He was a tough and loving man who will be greatly missed at home, at the winery and throughout the Napa Valley. My father bought Chateau Montelena in 1972 and has worked hard every day since to grow the best grapes and produce the best wines. My dad died of a life well lived.”

Though we never met Jim Barrett, he was a positive influence in the our lives. To honor this Napa Valley legend, my wife and I settled into our leather couch with a bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and watched again, the movie Bottle Shock. For those few wineauxs who have not seen the film, it is based (some say loosely) on the story of Chateau Montelena, the father – son relationship between Jim and Bo Barrett and the coming of age of Napa Valley…in the Age of Aquarius. All this the result of a sparsely attended blind Paris wine tasting, where some of the most renown French wine palates, much to their surprise, voted Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar’s 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon superior to the more respected French competition.

Fortunately for all involved George Taber, a writer for Time Magazine stationed in the Paris bureau, covered the event. George once expressed to me that he was surprised Time even picked up the story. But the editors did and this short, non-bylined piece sent shock waves through the wine industry. The article was reprinted and reprized in other news outlets significantly increasing the awareness of and demand for Napa Valley wines.

This was a more somber viewing of Bottle Shock and one where for the first time, I looked deeper into the characters for symbolism, real or imagined. I also thought about the effects this story has had on our lives. As portrayed, the character of Jim Barrett represented all the Napa and Sonoma trailblazers of the 1960’s and 1970’s who dared to dream about making in California fine wines that would challenge the Chateau thrones of France.

Bo’s character is more complex. In the stoner, loser kid who matures into the winemaker who ultimately represents Napa Valley at its birthright moment, he is Napa Valley itself. Once the home of cheap bulk wines with no deserved respect, Montelena, Stags Leap, Ridge, Clos du Val, Freemark Abbey and other upstart wineries showed the world, there was something better, something more mature, something worthy of serious attention happening in California wine country.

In the character of Gustavo Brambila we share the dreams of the migrant farm worker who wants more, to be the wine artist, not just the hired hand. Brambila was one of the first Latinos to graduate from UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science. In Sam Fulton, we are introduced to the future of the female winemaker who, in 1975, was a rare site, indeed. In an interesting parallel, Bo has, since 1987, been married to one of the first “rock star” female winemakers, Heidi Barrett, of Screaming Eagle (and many others) fame.

The story told in Bottle Shock may not be totally accurate in its detail (Sam did not exist, Gustavo did not work at Montelena until after the Judgment and Mike Grgich, now of Grigch Hills Winery actually made the famed Chardonnay) it is accurate in its portrayal of the heart, soul and passion of the pioneers of Napa Valley and Jim Barrett himself.

A little closer to home, it wasn’t many years ago I watched Bottle Shock with my son. He was considering changing degree plans to study winemaking, viticulture and enology at Texas Tech University. Texas winemaking today fights for the same respect Jim and Bo fought for in the 1970’s. He was then unconvinced this change was right for him. Though he’d grown up around great wines, he was unsure of the culture of winemaking. That is until he experienced the passion, the hard work and the artistic drive portrayed by Jim, Bo and Gustavo in Bottle Shock. Sharing that evening, watching Bottle Shock as those characters convinced my son he’d chosen the right path is an evening I will cherish.

A few months later the two of us traveled to Napa Valley for his spring break. We visited many of the notable and historic wineries. Our stop at Chateau Montelena was a special highlight, recalling  as we fed the ducks on Jade Lake, watching Bottle Shock together. What happened to his winemaking dreams? Well, in a short while I expect I will get a call from my son and he will share his harvest, cellar rat and winemaking tales from Clare Valley, South Australia. It is a big wine world.

Maybe it’s a little late Jim, but thanks to you and Bo for your passion and pioneering spirit in the early days of California wine. You have given me the chance to watch that same spirit in my son as he passionately embarks on his winemaking career.

Here’s to “dying from a life well lived.” We should all be so lucky!

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