The who’s who of Napa Valley’s wine industry gathered en masse Tuesday to pay tribute to vintner James L. Barrett, a man who friends, family and business associates said lived, prayed, played and worked hard.
Despite the fact that Barrett wasn’t keen on testimonials and memorials, more than 600 people assembled in the late morning at Meritage Resort to pay tribute to the 86-year-old Korean War-era submariner who launched Chateau Montelena Winery more than four decades ago.
His son, winemaker Bo Barrett, told the large gathering that his dad once confided in winemaker/father-in-law Dick Peterson that “he was not too big on funerals ... and was trying to figure how to get out of his own.”
Speakers at the memorial ranged from industry associates to a friend who regularly joined Barrett in the pursuit of his favorite sport, tennis.
They told how a Los Angeles lawyer came to the Napa Valley in 1972 with the idea of starting a world-class winery, a place where he could make a world-class cabernet sauvignon.
During a recent interview with former Time magazine correspondent George Taber, Barrett admitted he knew “nothing about running a winery” when he showed up in the valley some 40 years ago. In the videotaped piece, Barrett talked about discovering an abandoned “castle” in Calistoga, about marveling over the beauty of the property in the shadow of Mount St. Helena.
“I’m going to buy it,” he remembered saying at the time, adding, “If I’m going to lose everything it will be because (of a decision made with) my heart and not my head.”
For Tuesday’s tribute, family and business associates put together a narrative of Barrett’s early life — that the first job this son of immigrants had was selling newspapers on a Los Angeles street corner, and that he proudly sang in a boys choir featured in several films, something that earned the choristers considerable pocket money.
Barrett joined the U.S. Navy at age 17, earned his college degree at UCLA in two short years and was on active duty during both World War II and the Korean War. He earned his law degree at Loyola Law School and founded a successful Los Angeles law firm.
He launched the Chateau Montelena brand in 1972 and, proudly, a decade later, asked his son Bo to assume the role of winemaker. He was quite proud of the fact that a Chateau Montelena chardonnay that included grapes grown by the Hanna family, and made by Croatian immigrant Mike Grgich, bested all French and California white wines judged in a landmark Paris tasting in 1976.
Bill Hanna, whose family has grown grapes for Chateau Montelena since 1972, spoke of Barrett’s inclusiveness and loyalty: “Jim created a Camelot in Calistoga. ... He created an organization that had both soul and heart.”
Noting Barrett was a longtime member of the board of governors of Thomas Aquinas College, President Michael McLean said Barrett was a man of faith. “Jim had faith in God, in his son, Jesus Christ, in his church, in his family, in his friends, in his employees, and he had faith in young people (that would succeed him),” McLean said. “Faith is a reality of every person’s life, as much as reason is.”
Barrett, he noted, even felt it was important to “have faith in what we don’t know.”
Greg Ralston, former managing director of Chateau Montelena, pointed out he and Barrett “shared values. Our success was derived from the success of those we worked with. ... We recognized we weren’t the smartest guys in the room. He set high standards. I was glad I was an employee and not one of his kids.”
Brian Baker, Chateau Montelena’s chief financial officer, said Barrett was a man with long-range goals. During one conversation, he was asked by Barrett about looking ahead 50 years.
“I thought he was talking about an upcoming 50th anniversary, but quickly learned he was indeed talking about how we can be good stewards of the land for those who succeed us,” Baker said.
Former Sterling Vineyards President Greg DeLucca related that Barrett loved tennis so much, he spent countless hours scheduling matches four times a week for himself and some 30 friends.
“These were 30 independent guys,” DeLucca said. “When Jim called and asked you to play, you’d play ... or you might not play with him ever again.”
DeLucca offered stories of Barrett’s tennis court antics, as well as match vernacular. He shared the fact that the last time the two met on the tennis court, on Feb. 28, he lost to Barrett.
On Tuesday, DeLucca pleaded with Barrett to “be patient with us ... the old codgers will be joining you ... and looking to you to organize us at Barrett Heavenly Tennis Center.”
“He was a hero to me,” vintner John Shafer said of Barrett. Barrett helped preserve the tradition of Napa Valley vintners helping one another, talking over and sharing ideas at a weekly lunch on Wednesdays. “That tradition stands today ... helping one another, giving assistance. Jim believed in and trusted people.
“Bo, I think your dad will forgive you (for putting together the celebration of his life), and I hope he’ll forgive me for calling him a broken-down winemaker a few years ago.”
Bo Barrett said a friend’s description of his father might be the most apt — “an irascible, inspiring, cantankerous rascal. I worked with him, so I know he could be cantankerous. But he was also the most fun-loving and goofy guy.”
His dad started to feel a bit older when some longtime friends passed away, Bo Barrett noted. So his father began drinking up his roundly praised 1978 cabernet sauvignon. But doctors said Jim Barrett only “needed a new heart valve ... that was good for another 20 years, and then he had to get another one. By then he’d drunk up all the ’78 cab.”
Son said father had praised him over the years, but the one compliment that he took to heart was the time his father declared, “You got the Irish blarney gene from me.”
“He had a hell of a ride,” Bo Barrett said. “Let’s continue to live our lives like he did. ... All of you have a hell of a ride, too.”