Jim Barrett, 86; helped prove Calif. wines could be first-rate

Mr. Barrett with his world-renowned 1973 chardonnay.
Eric Risberg/Associated Press/file 1996
Mr. Barrett with his world-renowned 1973 chardonnay.

NEW YORK — Jim Barrett, the proprietor of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, whose chardonnay shocked the world with a first-place showing at the Judgment of Paris competition in 1976, died Thursday in San Francisco. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by his son Bo, who now runs Montelena.

The winning wine, a 1973 chardonnay, was among the first wines that Mr. Barrett made after his family bought the Montelena property. At the Paris tasting, a celebrated one-time event, a group of French judges picked it as the best white wine, over several well-known white Burgundies, helping to win recognition for the expanding California wine industry.


Although the tasting soon became the stuff of legend, it was less meaningful to Mr. Barrett himself, his son said.

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‘‘It rocketed us to fame, but that was for the chardonnay, which he was just making for the cash flow,’’ Bo Barrett said. ‘‘His real aim was for the estate cabernet to work. It did help us get the estate cab going.’’

Montelena eventually became best known for its long-lived, structured cabernet. Along with Heitz Wine Cellars, Mayacamas Vineyards, the Robert Mondavi Winery, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ­(another winner at the Paris tasting), it was among Napa Valley’s select until a new generation of winemakers eclipsed them in the 1990s with their plush, powerful wines.

Besides his son Bo, Mr. Barrett leaves his wife, the former Judy Debban; two daughters, Stephanie Pointer and Gabriela Barrett-Wilson; two other sons, Michael and Kevin; and five grandchildren.