James L. Barrett, Napa Valley vintner, dies at 86

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James L. Barrett, a pioneering Napa Valley vintner who stepped onto the world stage in a big way in 1976 when his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won a prestigious Paris tasting, has died. He was 86.

Barrett died Thursday in San Francisco, according to family spokeswoman Kristen Reitzell. No cause of death was given.

A senior partner at a Torrance, Calif., law firm, Barrett left his practice and moved to Napa to devote himself full time to Chateau Montelena, the historic estate he and a group of investors had bought in 1972. Founded in 1882 by Alfred Tubbs in Calistoga, the winery had been non-operational since the early 1900s, its stone chateau abandoned, the vineyards neglected.

Chateau Montelena -- and California wine -- burst onto the scene in 1976 at the famous tasting now known as "The Judgment of Paris." California wines were pitted against French labels in a blind tasting.

The list of judges was later described by Time magazine as "an oenophile's Who's Who." To the astonishment of the French experts, Californians won in both white and red categories. The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, crafted by Barrett's winemaker and partner Mike Grgich, beat out four white Burgundies and five other California Chardonnays. (Warren Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Cabernet Sauvignon won the reds.)

The French cried foul, to no avail.

The story was the basis for the 2008 film "Bottle Shock," in which actor Bill Pullman played Jim Barrett.

Grgich, who will be 90 next month, said, "The five years I spent at Chateau Montelena were the best of my life." He later worked for Robert Mondavi and then founded his own winery, Grgich Hills.

Six years after the historic tasting, in 1982, Barrett ceded winemaking duties to his son Bo.

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