Thu 21 Mar 2013
Jim Barrett, founder of Chateau Montelena, deserves all the praise he has received in the tributes and obituaries published in magazines and newspapers and online since his death on March 14 at the age of 86. A successful attorney with a particular vision about what chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines should be, in 1969 he acquired a long-abandoned Gothic-style winery built in 1882 near Calistoga, in the northern part of Napa Valley, worked to restore the building and the property’s vineyards and, while the estate vines were too young to produce viable grapes, sought reliable vineyards as sources. The event that brought Chateau Montelena and California (and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) to the astonished attention of the wine world was the famous or infamous Paris Tasting of 1976, organized by Englishman Steven Spurrier, at which Montelena’s Chardonnay 1973 — notice that the wines was a blend of grapes from Napa Valley and Alexander Valley — and the Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 placed first in competition with the best of white Burgundy and red Bordeaux. Though there has been been a great deal of controversy over the scoring methodology of the ’76 “Judgment of Paris,” the fact remains that, in this blind tasting with prestigious judges from the French wine, restaurant and publishing industries, the California wines involved performed extremely well, gratifying Americans, when the news came out, and embarrassing the French.
I have read many of the notices of Barrett’s death, and they refer, consistently, to his chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting. In the sense that he owned Chateau Montelena and was its guiding spirit, that assessment is correct. Only one writer that I have seen, though, S. Irene Virbila of the Los Angeles Times, noted the fact that the historic Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 was made by Mike Grgich, and that by rights the wine should properly be referred to as his chardonnay. I don’t mean to denigrate or diminish Jim Barrett’s accomplishment in shaping Chateau Montelena nor that of his son Bo Barrett, who became winemaker with the vintage of 1982 (and became CEO of Montelena at his father’s death). I’m a fan of the Montelena wines and their combination of power and elegance, and I look forward to tasting and writing about them with every vintage. However, the neglect of Grgich’s contribution in this area reflects a general neglect in the media of winemakers below the celebrity level. It’s symptomatic of this issue that Grgich was also ignored in the movie Bottle Shock (2008, directed by Randall Miller), which purported to tell the story of Montelena and the ’76 Paris Tasting, but actually sensationalized it. Of course Grgich went on to partner with Austin Hills to establish what is now the venerable Grgich Hills Estate.
My point is that I receive press releases many times a day from marketing firms and wineries that extol the virtues of new releases and the glorious histories and geographies of the wineries, the wisdom and passion of their owners and proprietors, urging me to accept samples for review, but never mentioning the name of the winemaker. Isn’t that like publicizing a book without naming the author or a movie without mentioning the director?
In line with giving credit where credit is due, I try to be consistent in giving credit for the images used on this blog. So, the image of Mike Grgich is from intowine.com; the photo of Jim Barrett (at top) and the label of the Montelena Chardonnay 1973 are so ubiquitous, however, that’s it’s difficult to tell whence they originated.