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This article first appeared in different form with three other interviews with winemakers in the Sunday Times 4 May 2014 entitled THE GRAPE ESCAPE. The other three interviews are available on this blog.
Bo Barrett, CEO and Chief Winemaker Chateau Montelena.
Work on St Patrick’s day stops for lunch of corned beef and cabbage every year at Chateau Montelena, north of Calistoga in the Napa Valley. Bo Barrett, current CEO and Chief Winemaker, celebrates his Irish heritage in style. He is third generation Irish. “We acknowledge where we came from since my Grandaddy arrived in Boston from Waterford to work on the railroad.”
John Barrett left Ireland just after the first world war, and while there is no documentation of his emigration, his certificate of marriage to Margaret O’Neill from Sneem, Co Kerry, on record in Chicago, is dated June 1919. John worked his way up to a job in Sears Roebuck which took him to Los Angeles where from the age of eight his son James (Jim), Bo’s father, grew up.
Jim became a successful lawyer, and, invited to lavish dinners and enjoying top level wines from Europe, became convinced that he could produce wines of elegance and excellence in California. He discovered Chateau Montelena, a property of 254 acres complete with a castle which had been developed by a number of owners over the years. The vineyards, established in 1882, had been run down due to the rigors of prohibition since 1920, then re-established for a while. A change of hands in 1958 led to a change of emphasis in favour of the use of the estate as a family home and the development of the gardens and excavation of a lake. Done at the expense of the vineyards, they were in a sorry state when Jim Barrett found it. “Legend has it my Dad and his partners paid about one million bucks for it in 1972”, says Bo, “but it was all started probably for under two million in pre 1976 dollars.”
Jim Barrett set about his task with vigour. With the help of financial partners, and a way with people that is legendary, he put together a team of experts, bought modern winemaking equipment and built a new winery. Replacing neglected vines with Cabernet Sauvignon, his aim was to make a red wine at a level of a Bordeaux first growth. He bought in Chardonnay grapes while they waited for the Cabernet to get established, and in 1972 started to make wine.
This was the same year that Bo started working in the vineyard, pulling weeds. Born James Patrick Barrett, aged 60 years on 16 March, Bo was a fun-lovin’ youth. “I was a General Education student at the University of Utah from 1972 until about 1976 when I changed to Fresno. In Utah most of my studies were whatever the school offered in the afternoons or evenings so as not to interfere with my full time avocation – skiing.” He worked his holidays in the vineyard to fund his other sporting pursuits – scuba diving, surfing and fly fishing – so knew what was going on in the winery when finally he became interested enough to study seriously. In Fresno he excelled in his studies in viticulture and oenology. In 1982, after agreement with his father to become Managing Partner and Chief Winemaker with the freedom to make the kind of decisions made by previous non-family winemakers, he joined Chateau Montelena full time.
Chateau Montelena had had a breakthrough in 1976 when, pitted against top French wines in a blind tasting, its 1973 Chardonnay came out on top. The shock for the French and triumph of the Californians could not be denied. Dubbed by Time magazine ‘The Judgement of Paris’, the event and its journey to that pinnacle is celebrated in the move Bottle Shock, starring a lugubrious Alan Rickman as wine retailer Stephen Spurrier (who organized the tasting), with Bill Pullman as Jim Barrett and Chris Pine as the sun kissed surfer, Bo. The success came just in time for financial survival and many accolades have since followed for their wines, including their ruby rich Cabernet Sauvignon with its black cherry notes and hints of dried fruit. Their Zinfandel is a superb example of this grape variety, and with the smooth Chardonnay, the winery is internationally recognised as one of California’s top producers.
The success of the wines is not surprising. They aim to pick the grapes to achieve an elegant fruitiness instead of the obvious, overblown flavours often found in wine from the region. The grapes are hand picked at night, when it’s cooler and will stay in better condition while waiting to be delivered as quickly as possible to the winery. Another reason for night picking is that the eyes focus better and result in choosing only the best, ripe grapes. There is art, science and agriculture at work here.
It’s big business at the winery and tourist tastings are popular. In one area of the parking lot is a sign which says, ‘Car park for Irish only. Others will be towed away.’ “That’s where I park”, says Bo. “It’s the only parking allowed in front of the chateau. After the barrels in front of the castle, it’s the second most popular photo spot. Tell the Irish to come and visit us here!”
Bo is married to Heidi Peterson Barrett, daughter of wine pioneer Richard Peterson, herself an acclaimed winemaker and consultant. Working with Amuse Bouche, Paradigm, Lamborn, Kenzo Estate, Au Sommet, Vin Perdu, and Fantesca, past clients include Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle. She also has her own label La Sirena.
Their son Seamus Patrick Barrett, aged 37, lives in Brooklyn, NY, and following in his grandfather’s footsteps, attends law school at City University of NY, (CUNY). Formerly a Recording Engineer in Los Angeles, he is due to complete his studies and take the bar exam later this year.
Remi Alexa Barrett, aged 28, is Regional Sales Manager for La Sirena.
Their second daughter, Chelsea Amelia Barrett, aged 26, is Assistant Winemaker, building her winemaking experience at another respected Napa Valley winery – Joel Gott Wines.
Bo is clearly proud of them and of his Irish heritage. His father Jim died last year, but he is well remembered for his warmth and fun and the green bow tie he wore at family celebrations. Bo sees his father’s success as due to his management and people skills, but acknowledges that the Irish make pretty good winemakers. “Maybe it’s because of the old saying, ‘if it wasn’t for whiskey, the Irish would rule the world’. Perhaps it’s why we’re so good at the less potent beverages and the reason we make and sell wine.”