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."
The creation of that winning wine was the subject of the 2008 movie "Bottle Shock," which has boosted interest in Chateau Montelena and the surrounding Calistoga region to new heights, said Brian Baker, vice president of sales and marketing at the winery.
Barrett was one of a generation of winery owners that salvaged the wine industry of Napa Valley, which had been nearly destroyed by Prohibition. People like Barrett thought long-term and planned carefully to allow their children to take over, said Hugh Davies, president of nearby Schramsberg, founded in 1965 by another pioneer, his father, Jack Davies.
"I am just very, very thankful for the efforts, the really impressive efforts, they made for another generation to be here and carry on what those people started," Davies said.
Barrett's son Bo has carried on his father's work as winemaker at Chateau Montelena. The family has prepared a succession plan that will ensure the winery remains in family ownership, he said.
Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said Barrett's legacy extended beyond establishing Napa Valley wine as world class and included preserving the beauty of the county, particularly his meticulous refurbishing of the monumental Chateau Montelena building, constructed in 1882, and the surrounding vineyards.
"He didn't just make a little effort at either of those things," she said. "They were really significant, highly visible and impactful efforts."