The Barrett family has been keeping it in the family for generations.
When you think of wine, the image that comes to mind, right along with the pretty label, is likely a smile of surprise, a feeling of conviviality, a taste of excitement and a sense of friends, loved ones—or potential loved ones—sharing the moment. For a beverage to connote all that, it may not be too much of a reach to imagine that you could trace part of the resonance of the experience all the way back to its origins. With that in mind, a visit with the Barretts of Chateau Montelena is a perfect introduction to the story about how Napa Valley wines first became known as world-class contenders, which was so charmingly depicted in the 2008 movie Bottle Shock.
Bo Barrett, winemaker and son of owner Jim Barrett (who passed away last year), is now CEO of Chateau Montelena. And he looks like his pictures—twinkly eyes, jeans and boots, someone who seems more ready to be out pruning vines, taking off in his plane or heading down a ski slope than perched on the sofa of the Chateau’s baronial living room in front of a fancy tea service. Whereas Heidi Peterson Barrett, Bo’s wife of nearly 30 years, looks quite comfortable under the Waterford chandeliers brought from Jim’s ancestral Irish homeland, even as she enthuses about the outdoors and their flying, skiing and upcoming scuba diving vacation.
Together, they share a lifetime of love for the wine business, two independent careers—his as winemaker and now executive, and hers as an independent, second-generation winemaker. Their two daughters, Remi, 27, and Chelsea, 25, are following them in the business, in marketing and winemaking, respectively (their son, Seamus, is following his own path). They’re the quintessential Napa Valley wine family, and it all started, in a big way, for Bo and Chateau Montelena, back in 1976.
First, for those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s a brief review.
The little winery that shocked the world
When Jim Barrett agreed to enter Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay, made by Mike Grgich, in a blind tasting known as the “Judgment of Paris,” the reputation of California wines—even Napa Valley wines—wasn’t stellar. Yet, to the amazement of the wine world, Montelena’s Chardonnay triumphed over nine French and other California wines. To complete Napa Valley’s triumph, a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, made by Warren Winiarski, beat the French in the red wine category as well. To honor the achievement, bottles of the winners were put on exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History and, in 2013, both were given a place—along with Neil Armstrong’s space suit, Lewis and Clark’s compass, Lindbergh’s plane and 97 other noteworthy objects—in the Smithsonian’s new book, 101 Objects That Made America.
The 2008 movie, inspired by this seismic triumph, was, Bo laughs, “Not a documentary!” It featured a domineering father (true); a cocky, pony-tailed surfer son (close); and a sexy intern (totally fictitious) all overcoming a variety of real or plot-driven challenges to end up shocking the world with the greatness of Napa Valley Chardonnay (still true).
Bo and Heidi laugh, remembering how the film romanticized the story. (People are always asking the tasting room staff how the mythical intern, “Samantha,” is doing, they relate.) “But it was such a kind and well-spirited movie,” he says with a grin. “They just wanted to show how much people are committed to that whole dream of making wine with a sense of place and something unique, special, rare and rewarding that you want to be a part of.” And that part remains absolutely true.
Plus, Heidi says, the story itself is important to remember. “We don’t have a really long history of wine compared to Europe,” she says. “That was one pivotal, historical wine story that actually happened. That movie, in a fanciful way, brings that to light.”
Plus, they both acknowledge, the movie added a certain “reality” to the reality. “Before the movie,” says Bo, “everybody in the Smithsonian walked right by the exhibit. After the movie, they’re like, ‘Hey! Check it out! We saw that movie!’”
The back story
Anyone climbing up the stone stairs to the tasting room today can feel the sense of time as the great stone Chateau, now listed in America’s National Register of Historic Places, looms in ivy-covered grandeur. Snuggled into a hillside at the foot of Mt. St. Helena, the Chateau looks out onto the man-made “Jade Lake,” that wraps around little islands crowned with ornate gazebos, accessible by Chinese-inspired wooden walkways. Even on a misty day, the place is full of serenity, elegance and—notice the family’s private driveway marked “Irish Only. All others will be towed”—wit.
There’s a fountain set into a massive stone wall at the tasting room’s entrance, and it’s easy to imagine ladies in 1890s high-buttoned shoes and long skirts perched, with parasols, glowing from the exertion of climbing the steps, resting happily before entering and enjoying some nice wine with the Chateau’s original founder, Alfred Tubbs.
In 1882, San Francisco rope magnate Alfred Loving Tubbs bought 254 acres in Calistoga, planted grapes and, by 1896, had a thriving winery until Prohibition (1919 to 1933) brought the U.S. wine industry to a standstill. The Tubbs enterprise then declined and, in 1958, Tubbs sold the land to a Chinese couple, electrical engineer Yort Wing Frank and his wife, Jeanie. Frank excavated the lake and surrounded it with Chinese-inspired pavilions and gardens, which gave the place the distinctive feeling visitors enjoy to this day. In 1972, Los Angeles attorney Jim Barrett saw its potential and (with a couple of investors) bought the place with the intention of creating first-rate wine. He made Mike Grgich his winemaker. His son, Bo, worked with them and, in 1976, their Chardonnay was chosen by organizer Steven Spurier and American wine judge Patricia Gallagher for entry in the Paris tasting. The rest is history.
Then and now
When Prohibition lifted and World War II was over, the world had become industrialized, and so had wine production, Bo says. “Most California wine was of the industrial sort, with the handcrafted wines—fine wines in small lots, coming from carefully tended vineyards, where quality is paramount—few and far between.”
It’s not that nobody was making fine wine, but they were the rare ones. “Back in the days of the Paris tasting,” Bo says, “there were wine pioneers focusing on being the finest. Among them, Dick Peterson, Heidi’s dad and, of course my dad. They were focusing on making higher and higher quality wines all the time.” But the world in the 1970s was one where the predominant California wines were of the industrial variety—mass produced, fairly cheap—and really great wines were uncommon. Thus, the shock of the Paris tasting.
Now, says Bo, the situation is reversed. As technology has evolved and standards have been raised, winemaking techniques have been fine-tuned right down the line, from farming all the way through the winery operations, to produce the quality of wines now standard for Napa Valley. So, for some, the intention was the same then as now. But now, both standards of quality and technology have improved so that, really, says Bo, “almost all Napa Valley wines are good. Instead of it being uncommon to find a great one, it’s now uncommon to find a bad one!”
How good can it get?
Heidi Peterson Barrett, who makes her own wines under the La Sirena label, and also makes a wine together with Bo, which they call Barrett & Barrett, has been an independent winemaker since 1988, making famous wines for clients like Amuse Bouche, Paradigm, Lamborn, Kenzo Estate, Screaming Eagle and more. Her accolades from Robert Parker include the highest possible scores and his own designation of her as, “first lady of wine.”
A sample review of one of Heidi’s wines comes from the May 2009 Robb Report, describing her Au Sommet as, “The pinnacle of California Cabernets from ‘California’s foremost oenological artist’… a masterpiece. The wine’s name, Au Sommet (‘to the top’), reflects Barrett’s unrivaled winemaking talents at their peak...its flavor components are explosively dense, dark, and wild, filled with earthy aromas and lusciously concentrated brambleberry fruit. To this lush raw beauty, Barrett brings her civilizing touch."
The wines she produces together with Bo maintain that high standard. Daughter Remi quotes wine critic Antonio Galloni as having described the Barrett & Barrett 2010 Cabernet as “A picture perfect example of the vintage, the 2010 impresses for its imposing structure and phenomenal overall balance. The powerful incisive tannins need time to soften, but this is nevertheless a super-impressive wine, even today.”
The Barretts stress the drinkability of their wines, pointing out that the reason they make them is to be enjoyed, preferably with a convivial meal and good friends.
About her fame, she’s modest. A score of 100 doesn’t mean she can’t get better. “I try not to go overboard on scores,” she laughs. “For me, yes, getting 100 on a wine is a very high compliment, absolutely. But it’s one person’s opinion on that one day.” More important for a great winemaker in a place where pretty much all the wines are good, the challenge becomes a more subtle matter of achieving distinction.
“First,” says Heidi, “each vineyard has its own distinct footprint, and so do winemakers. Nothing else tastes like the footprint of Chateau Montelena or the Lamborn vineyard at the top of Howell Mountain. They’re very distinct. Then, within my current portfolio of eight different brands, you can see my winemaking footprint—yet my wines are not at all the same. They’re each very distinct.” This kind of distinction is not about marketing or branding slogans applied after the fact to sell wines, she explains, but about the innate integrity of approach that begins with a deep history in wine and a knowledge of the individual piece of land, and completes itself in the sensitivity and skill of the winemaker.
“To be distinct,” says Heidi, “you need to be true to your own winemaking style. Try to make something delicious instead of copying what everyone else does. Right now, the trend is toward über ripe, high alcohol, tons of oak and lots of extended maceration. The wines end up tasting very much the same, and they may or may not get high points. My footprint is about bringing in a very balanced, fine-tuned yet delicious style of wine, true to type,” says Heidi. “You should be able to tell what it is. For example, Zinfandel should be peppery, black raspberry, very much Zinfandel. Fine-tune winemaking around that: What could be [this varietal’s] best thing?”
Heidi begins her winemaking by looking at a particular piece of land, how it receives the light, whether it’s on the slope or flat, and imagining the taste of the wine that could come from that land. “My job is to bring it to its best potential: What’s the best use of those grapes? What would be the best style wine I could make? It’s somewhat dictated by the vineyard.”
Hillside grapes will have a different character from valley floor grapes, she continues. “If it’s hillside, that’s going to make something pretty beefy and dense. If it’s valley floor, it will make something more soft and round.” The winemaking should match that. The trick is to be distinct yet also consistent. “That’s the other thing that newcomers sometimes don’t realize: You did it once, but can you do it again?”
Stay true to your vision
“Heidi and I work in this classic chemistry,” says Bo, “Fourteen percent alcohol, not 16, and good balance. It’s not about those big, showy, giant, ponderous wines. We made crisp, lean, white Burgundy Chardonnay for 30 years when Americans didn’t want it. So we’re paddling upstream,” he says, laughing and making swimming motions with his arms. “We’re paddling upstream, and the river of Chardonnay is flowing against us. But we’re still paddling along, making crisp, lean, bright Chardonnay. Then, all of a sudden, the tide turns. And people say, ‘Wow! This white Burgundy’s good,’ or ‘Wow! Chardonnay that tastes like grapes rather than wood!’”
They both believe that when it’s all good, you can afford to trust your own taste. Explore. Drink it. Enjoy it. “When you see it, you know it,” says Heidi. “That’s what we’re all looking for.”
Evolution of Napa Valley wine culture
While Bo and Heidi grew up in the wine business, Bo makes it clear that he isn’t a second-generation winemaker, as Heidi is. “I’m a second-generation vintner, but I’m a first-generation winemaker,” he says. “My father, if you told him to get a pump and fill a barrel, to his dying day, would’ve never been able to fill a barrel, drive a tractor or prune a vine. My father was an attorney. He was our philosopher king. He was the team builder.”
“He had a dream and a vision,” Heidi says.
“Very much,” says Bo. “He said, ‘This is my vision. This is the grape. This is what we want to do. All you people: Make it happen!’ For the Paris tasting, he picked a vineyard manager, a winemaker and some cellar workers, and they made some amazing wine.”
Jim was tough to work for, especially for someone with the same last name, Bo offers. “I have four brothers and sisters who also worked with Chateau Montelena,” says Bo, “but didn’t find it in their skill set to be able to work for my father. He was a tough guy. Like most successful winery owners, in general, they’re visionaries but they’re tough. You had to be pretty tough, too. I actually quit working for him in 1981. I went to Paso Robles. Then I was recruited back.”
In the movie, “Bottle Shock,” Bo and his dad are always taking out their anger at each other in a boxing ring on the property. That, he says, laughing and shaking his head, didn’t happen. There was no boxing ring and, “They never punched each other,” Heidi laughs. “They had mental battles, but they didn’t duke it out!” She smiles at the thought. “One of my favorite phrases of [Jim’s] was, ‘I’m firm but unreasonable!’ He said it tongue in cheek, but he knew it was true!”
Time worked in favor for father and son. “We became friends over the years,” says Bo. “I became a trusted confidant and a professional. When I came back to work for him in 1982, we negotiated a deal where he’d never treat me as his son and I’d never treat him as my father while at work. Going hunting or fishing, skiing or goofing around, flying airplanes—that’s the time we’re father and son.
Turning point for Chateau Montelena
A few years ago, in 2008, word got out that Jim Barrett was selling Chateau Montelena to a French concern. The news was shocking, even to people not in the business. The storied Chateau Montelena was a Napa Valley institution. How could it be sold? Bo and Heidi decided to adapt and created their own brand that they could make together, even though they’d no longer own the winery. The idea was to create something they could pass on to their children, and that would be a harmonious blending of their talents. “Both of our styles come into play there a little bit,” says Heidi.” They call it Barrett & Barrett. The name, to them, is an honest reflection of all they do together as a team, working and playing, independently and together. “His mom summed it up really well,” says Heidi. “She said, ‘You guys are pulling on the same rope.’”
As it turned out, the winery’s sale—happily for Heidi and Bo— fell through. Jim, who was getting tired, decided to step aside and let Bo do some replanting, retrofit the cellar and modernize Montelena to, as Heidi says, “become the true wine estate that it is.” So Montelena is again going strong, and Barrett & Barrett is producing about 300 cases of what Heidi calls, “really serious, beautiful Cabernet that we both work on.” She loves the Barrett & Barrett logo—an ancient coin with the figure of a winged horse and a fishtail—on the back, it says, “Land, Sea, Sky,” which seems to sum up what they do as pilots (she flies an R-44 helicopter and he flies both the helicopter and fixed-wing planes), skiers and scuba divers. “We exist in all three planes,” she says. “It’s also everything you need to make fine wine: land—the Napa Valley, the best terroir; sea—enough rainfall, water; and sky—proper climate and all of that. It’s really what you need to make fine wine.”
Preserving the Napa brand
Heidi says that people who come here realize what a special place it is and feel a sense of stewardship of the little jewel that is Napa Valley. “We all feel very protective of it,” she says, “and people are aware of that.” It helps that the character of the place, and the potential dangers to that character, were recognized early on. “The Ag Preserve was brilliant,” she says. “Our forefathers set that up and realized we needed it to protect the valley. They’re not making any more Napa Valleys.”
She sees the future for the valley and the business as strong. “If we continue to keep our integrity, guard our brand and keep making better and better wines, we’ll secure our place in or near the top in the world of wine going forward. That’s in our future. That’s what we’re working on.”
“Guard the brand?” I ask, “Do all the billionaires moving in dilute the culture?”
Bo laughs. “Chateau Montelena was built by a tycoon!” he says. “Alfred Tubbs was a guy from outside of Napa Valley. He didn’t know anything about growing grapes or making wine. He came up here and built this fancy-pants winery. He put in all these fancy vineyards instead of forests. Others, like Krug and Schramsberg, were just struggling along, trying to make an honest living, and here comes this bazillionaire—to use modern terms—and he builds this winery. That was 1882! So should I be mad because a tycoon puts a winery somewhere and will never make his money back? No! Maybe in 100 years, that will be an epic, world-class place.”
What about the millennials?
The “millennial” Barrett daughters laugh. Remi and Chelsea both graduated from UC Davis, as did Heidi (Bo is a Fresno State alum), and are following their parents into the business—Remi, who lives in San Francisco, works for her mother predominantly in sales and assisting with some marketing for La Sirena and Barrett & Barrett. Chelsea, who’s on the path to become a winemaker, is currently working for Joel Gott wines. (Heidi and Bo’s son, Seamus, is finishing law school in New York, following in grandfather Jim’s footsteps.)
Both daughters share their parents’ passion for the valley, its culture, its beauty and all they can enjoy there. They decline to identify as a generation, preferring to acknowledge many individual tastes, all participating in a more open wine culture than perhaps that of their parents, and one more dedicated to enjoyment of wine as part of life.“We believe anybody can enjoy wine, and there are lots of great wines at affordable prices. You don’t have to spend a crazy amount of money to have a great wine,” says Remi.
Like their parents, both enjoy satisfying after-work lives. Remi, who along with her passion for wine and her love of working with and for her mother, is a singer/songwriter and plays keyboard in a two-person band in San Francisco called Vicereine. Chelsea, when not working at the winery, enjoys quiet times with friends, reading and knitting. All five Barretts say their most fun is when they’re all together, traveling, adventuring and enjoying what they do.
Making people happy
"Why am I still making wine after almost 40 years?” Bo asks himself. “What makes me happy? It’s making people’s lives a little bit better, one bottle at a time. And it’s about how much we care that they enjoy what we do. That’s our job: to make people’s lives a little bit better, one glass at a time.”
Heidi readily agrees, and adds that it’s not as easy as it seems. “I think people would be shocked at how much work it is. What they don’t know is just how committed people are. You have to be in for the long haul. It’s a longer-term picture to do something like this and do it well. You can’t just do it for one or two years [to be successful]. When you’re in, you’re really in.”
“It’s farming,” says Bo, with all that involves, such as, this year, drought.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” agrees Heidi. “But it is very satisfying to create something from the earth. Knowing someone’s enjoying it with their family or their friends. It’s immensely satisfying when they write and tell you, ‘Oh my gosh. This made our day. This was the best.’ That’s why we do it.”
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