Q&A with Bo Barrett, Winemaker of Napa’s Chateau Montelena
James P. "Bo" Barrett has been the Winemaker at Chateau Montelena Winery since 1982. Bo’s career in the wine industry began in 1972, right after he graduated from high school, when his family purchased Chateau Montelena. He spent the first summer pulling star thistle in the old vineyard and picking up rocks in preparation for replanting. In 1976 Bo transferred to Fresno State University, where he was an honors student in Viticulture and Enology. 1976 was a crucial year, one that would forever change the perception of American wine when a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay bested French White Burgundies in a blind tasting, known as the Judgment of Paris. As 1981 drew to a close, Chateau Montelena’s original winemaker left to pursue other opportunities and Bo was offered the job by his father, the winery’s Managing General Partner. The rest is, as they say, history.
Certainly the “Judgment at Paris” where the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay surprised everyone and took top honors, has become a seminal event in American wine history. But at the time, was the whole experience even relevant to you and your family?
It was extremely important as soon as it came out in Time Magazine, The LA Times, etc. The hand crafted Napa Valley wines were only being recognized on the West Coast and it was tough to get the other U.S. markets like New York, Boston, and Chicago to take us seriously, and even tougher to sell wines there; no matter how good they were. You have to remember that the center of American winemaking at that time was Modesto! That Napa won both the red and white wines at the Paris Tasting was catalytic to the formation of Napa today. So hell yes it was relevant!
“Sideways” was a huge film, and then came “Bottle Shock,” specifically about the 1976 Paris tastings and your involvement. Did you enjoy either movie?
Sure. I thought Sideways was enjoyable as a “Looser-buddy movie” loosely framed around wine, but I did have a hard time where the dude stole from his mother! Bottle Shock is a really fun movie and it is a love story to Napa wine, so of course we like that one. When people snivel about the liberties taken in the Bottle Shock story I reply that there are heaps of documentaries about Napa wines at the library, go get one of those if you want the facts.
What many people don’t realize is that you took over the reigns as winemaker in the early 1980s. What are the accomplishments that you are most proud of?
I would have to say making great wines in the tougher vintages, and an unbroken track record for Chateau Montelena since 1978. Taste our 1983, 2000, or any one of those vintages that are generally pooh-poohed. Winning the tougher games is always very satisfying.
You scuba dive, I scuba dive, and the underwater world is a thing of stunning beauty few people get to experience. Are there similarities to winemaking and scuba, and if so, what are they?
Not so much. Other than needing lots of expensive special equipment! That is a more philosophical concept of appreciating the special wonders of our Magnificent Water Planet, the same planet that allows us to grow such rare and distinctive wines. But diving really is recreation and winemaking is work.
In addition to Chardonnay, Chateau. Montelena makes Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Riesling. Do you have a favorite?
I’d have to say Zinfandel. For the style we make Zinfandel is really a mixed media. I look at Chardonnay and Riesling as painting in watercolors: the white paper is the texture and style of the wine, and the winemaker adds colors to make it enjoyable. But the white of the painting remains an important part of the work. Red wine is like sculpture, much more dimensional, and shaping it is a huge part of the style and structure. Cabernet is like working in stone, but Zinfandel is a little more malleable and not as heavy, so there is a framework under the fruit that remains non-obvious.
The Chateau is one of the most beautiful properties in the Napa Valley. But what about the property actually produces such exceptional wines?
We have an unusual vineyard site where we have all three of the essential Napa Valley soils in one place. The volcanic hillside has very sparse soils; the alluvial fan of the Napa River is the heart of the Montelena Estate; and we have some of the famous Napa Loams - and all these soils are in one place. For our other wines, like the Chardonnay, over the years we have used the same focus on the right grape in the right place, and we grow those grapes to the same high standards for each specific site.
Is there a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay “style” and if so, what is it?
Absolutely yes. The style is to focus on the special flavors of the grapes and not so much the manipulations, or The Hand of Man. I suppose you could call it “minimalist” by saying what we don’t do; no malolactic fermentation, no barrel ferment, no battinage, less that 10% new oak, therefore we have very little “additive” flavorings. We use a primarily old school white Burgundy “protect the fruit” philosophy, and balanced basic chemistry, alcohol, acid, and pH. So the Montelena style is very strong pure Chardonnay fruit, absolutely dry (no sugar), a balanced and brightly layered wine. The other complexities remain in the background. Another thing that makes our style distinct is that it is one of very few New World Chardonnays that are designed to age 7 to 10 years.
Getting the early attention you did for your wines, has that ultimately been a blessing or a curse to you and the winery?
Getting that early attention only resulted in us raising the already very high standards for ourselves. I suppose the question really is “did it make it tough having to follow up to match or surpass people’s expectations every year?” The answer is no. High standards and integrity are not a curse if you like to work hard. So without any waffling whatsoever, it has been a blessing.
Are there varieties you would like to have made that you haven’t tried yet?
Sure. I would like to make some Gewurztraminer. And whatever they use to make Priorato, that would probably be fun. Tempranillo perhaps, too. Making wine is “my thing” so sure there are lots of media I would like to work with.
Wine has become a common beverage experience in the U.S., after many decades of long, hard work. American wines are now besieged by cheaper, foreign wines. What do you see as the long-term ramifications of the influx of inexpensive global wines on the American marketplace?
The USA is just now finally getting over the effects of Prohibition. Have you ever read “alternative history” fictions? My alternative fiction would present this point: absent Prohibition, what would be the number one wine producing and consuming nation on the planet? I think you can guess that I argue it would be the U.S. I am a big believer in free markets, and yes the cheap foreign government subsidized wines are really not a level playing field for U.S. producers. But I feel that quality will prevail and as the U.S. market for wine matures, the price versus quality fundamentals of consumer choice and competition does improve the wines for the consumers.
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