Vintners who made a difference

Columnist April 2, 2013

Napa Valley is celebrating two of its pioneers this week. They are men whose collaboration during the rough-and-tumble early years of California’s modern wine renaissance helped establish the Golden State’s reputation for making world-class wine.

Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena in Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley, died March 14 at age 86. He bought the run-down winery in 1972 and skyrocketed to fame a few years later when his 1973 chardonnay — just his second vintage — won the famous “Paris tasting,” with several French judges scoring it higher than some of Burgundy’s best whites.

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

“Not bad for kids from the sticks,” Barrett said when told the news.

The tasting, essentially a publicity stunt by British-born wine merchant Steven Spurrier for his Paris store, is now a wine legend and an oft-mimicked model for emerging wine regions to show they can play with the big boys.

A public memorial for Barrett was scheduled for April 2.

Meanwhile, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, the Croatian-born winemaker Barrett hired to refurbish the winery and vineyards, turned 90 on April 1, with a series of special events scheduled at his Grgich Hills Estate winery in Rutherford, a few miles southeast of Calistoga. 

Grgich was an experienced winemaker when he joined Montelena in 1972, having worked with respected enologist Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards and with Robert Mondavi at his eponymous winery. Grgich managed the day-to-day operations at Montelena in the early years while Barrett commuted to Napa Valley from his law practice in Los Angeles.

Not long after the 1976 Paris tasting, Barrett and Grgich had a falling-out. Grgich was — and long remained — resentful that his former employer did not give him due credit for making the winning wine. Grgich does get full credit in George M. Taber’s book “Judgment of Paris” (Scribner, 2005), a thorough account of the tasting and its effect on California wine, and in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Exhibit titled “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” He was left completely out of the story in the heavily fictionalized movie “Bottle Shock” (2008), visible only as a silent figure in the background wearing a beret.

In a telephone interview, Grgich was gracious toward his former employer. “I am grateful to Mr. Jim Barrett for giving me an opportunity to show my knowledge of winemaking and what I could do,” he said. “We had five years of a very productive relationship, for me and for Chateau Montelena, as those five years spread the news around the world about the winery and California.”

Taber said the two “really put California chardonnay on the map and made chardonnay for a generation America’s favorite white wine. Taber, who as a Time magazine correspondent in Paris in 1976 was the only journalist to cover the Paris tasting, was also the last to interview Barrett, in late February, for an oral history he is compiling for the Smithsonian. He gives both Barrett and Grgich credit for Montelena’s success.

“Mike was the one who made that wine and put California on the road to drinking chardonnay,” Taber said. “But he couldn’t have done it without an investor willing to give him the resources and freedom he needed to make the best wine possible.”

Warren Winiarski, 85, is another Napa Valley pioneer who, like Barrett, left a successful career (in his case  as a college professor) to help create a fledgling wine region’s reputation. “There aren’t many of us left,” he says.

Like Grgich, Winiarski worked at the Robert Mondavi Winery before establishing Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. His 1972 cabernet sauvignon bested Bordeaux’s best wines at the Paris tasting.

“Wine estates, particularly historic etates such as Montelena, need people like Jim Barrett, and I’m glad that its survival under family ownership is secure,” Spurrier, now a columnist with Decanter magazine in London, wrote in an e-mail.

Winiarski and Grgich credit Barrett and his son, Bo, who has directed winemaking at Montelena since 1982, with remaining true to their original vision of producing elegant wines that reflect a classic California style. Montelena today still makes delicious chardonnay, but the winery is best known for its cabernet sauvignon.

Cabernet was Jim Barrett’s passion. The chardonnay that made him and Grgich famous was made from grapes purchased to keep the winery afloat until the newly planted cabernet vines could bear fruit. Most of the grapes for that winning chardonnay came from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley.

Sometimes, expediency leads to greatness. 

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.

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