James L. Barrett, a pioneering Napa Valley vintner who stepped onto the world stage in a big way in 1976 when his Chateau Montelena chardonnay won a prestigious Paris tasting, died March 14 in San Francisco, family spokeswoman Kristen Reitzell said. He was 86. The cause was not given.
After leaving his law practice in Torrance, Calif., Mr. Barrett moved to the Napa Valley and devoted himself full time to Chateau Montelena, the historic estate he and a group of investors bought in 1972. Founded in 1882, the winery had been abandoned for decades. Mr. Barrett commuted for several years from Los Angeles to the Napa Valley in his airplane.
Chateau Montelena — and California wine — burst onto the scene in 1976 at the famous tasting now known as “The Judgment of Paris,” when California wines were pitted against French wines in a blind tasting organized by the Paris-based British wine merchant Steven Spurrier to celebrate America’s bicentennial. The list of judges was later described by Time magazine as “an oenophile’s Who’s Who.”
To the astonishment of the French experts, California wines won in both white and red categories. The wine that beat out four white Burgundies and five other California chardonnays was the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay crafted by Mr. Barrett’s winemaker and partner Mike Grgich. (Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ cabernet sauvignon won the reds.)
Mr. Barrett famously quipped about his win, “Not bad for some kids from the sticks.” The French cried foul, but the Americans won fair and square.
The story was the basis for the 2008 film “Bottle Shock,” in which actor Bill Pullman played Mr. Barrett.
Grgich, who will be 90 next month, remembers signing the contract to join Chateau Montelena in 1972. “The five years I spent at Chateau Montelena were the best of my life,” said Grgich, who had been working for Robert Mondavi and later founded his own winery, Grgich Hills.
Six years after the historic tasting, in 1982, Mr. Barrett ceded the winemaking duties to his son Bo, who continued the Montelena style of elegant chardonnays and rich, structured cabernet sauvignons with much lower alcohol than the big bruisers that win high scores from wine critics today.
Mr. Barrett remained actively involved in the winery as chief executive and general partner until his death. In a statement, the company said that the winery will stay in the family and that Bo Barrett will continue as winemaker and chief executive.
James L. Barrett was born Nov. 8, 1926, in Chicago to Irish immigrants who moved their family to Los Angeles in the 1930s. As a member of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir, Mr. Barrett appeared in many movies and radio programs.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1946 and a law degree from Loyola University of Law in Los Angeles in 1951. He served in the Navy in World War II and the Korean War. He went on to found the law firm of Barrett, Stearns, Collins, Gleason & Kinney in 1957.
Today Chateau Montelena produces 42,000 cases of wine a year.
Survivors include his wife of 33 years, Judy Barrett; five children from a previous marriage; and five grandchildren.