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Wine icon Jim Barrett dies at 86

  • Chateau Montelena owner Jim Barrett, shown in this 2008 file photo, died Thursday at 86. (SCOTT MANCHESTER/Press Democrat)

Jim Barrett, who stunned the wine world in 1976 when his Napa Valley chardonnay beat a lineup of French wines in a blind tasting that came to be known as the "Judgment of Paris," died Thursday at age 86.

The event, covered in a short blurb in Time magazine, vaulted Barrett's Chateau Montelena into the top rank of wineries and put Napa Valley on the map of wine lovers worldwide.

"He was a very forward-thinking man and I always admired his ability to put that forward thinking into action," said winemaker Warren Winiar-ski, whose Stags' Leap cabernet sauvignon topped a spread of French red wines at that same tasting.

"It is always wonderful to win a tasting when you're starting out," Winiarski said. "I don't think anyone knew the full extent of it; it came on very slowly."

Barrett died Thursday surrounded by family and loved ones. The cause of death was "a life well lived," said his son, Bo Barrett.

Jim Barrett, then a lawyer in Southern California, bought the decaying and long-dormant Chateau Montelena in the foothills north of Calistoga in 1972. He hired Croatian winemaker Mike Grgich, who had worked previously at Beaulieu and for the Mondavi family.

Grgich recalled Friday that Barrett had given him the freedom and support to rehab the defunct winery and apply his knowledge to the new label. The wine that eventually would win the famous Paris tasting was just their second vintage together.

"It was a very important event, not only for Napa and Sonoma but for the whole United States," said Grgich, who left Chateau Montelena in 1977 to found his own label.

Barrett was on tour in France at the time of the tasting, and he sent just a brief wire back to his winemaker to break the news of the victory. It wasn't immediately clear, however, just how important the event would be.

"I thought something big had happened, but when the New York Times called, I really realized what that meant," Grgich said, "and I was reborn."

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