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Elin’s Wine Pick: Here’s to Jim Barrett and His Chardonnay

Jim Barrett and his Chardonnay

Jim Barrett and Chardonnay

The legacy of Jim Barrett, the 86-year-old owner of Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena who died last week, inspired this selection. The fresh, creamy-textured 2010 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay is a wonderfully balanced white with aromas of citrus and white flowers and flavors of green apple, lemon curd and wet slate.

Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week

2010 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay

Price: $40 to $50

Region: Napa Valley, California

Grapes: 100% Chardonnay

Alcohol: 14.1%

Serve with: Lobster salad, lemon-thyme chicken


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It’s a reminder that although the valley’s most famous grape is Cabernet, some producers make pretty good whites there too.

Chateau Montelena‘s historic 19th-century stone winery and vineyards north of Calistoga were  neglected when Barrett snapped up the estate in 1972. He poured in money to restore it and hired Mike Ggrich, who now runs his own Grgich Hills Estate, as winemaker.

Several years later, the winery’s Chardonnay gained overnight fame when French judges rated the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (the second vintage) above four great white Burgundies in a blind comparison at the now legendary 1976 Paris tasting. Upon hearing the news, Barrett was widely quoted as saying, “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”

The tasting’s results reshaped the wine world forever. The complete story is well told in the book “The Judgment of Paris” by George Taber, the only journalist present at the tasting. The cheesy Hollywood movie “Bottle Shock” provides a fictionalized version of the Barrett/Montelena side of the tale.

Legacy of Jim Barrett continues

When many Napa Chardonnays jumped on the oaky, buttered popcorn style, Chateau Montelena remained true to its origins, avoiding malolactic fermentation (which reduces acidity) and aging only a small percentage in new oak.

Chateau Montelena Winery

Chateau Montelena Winery. Credit: Courtesy of Chateau Montelena

It always seems to age better than most Napa Chardonnays.

The cool 2010 growing season was marked by a late August heat wave, which burned grapes in some wineries’ vineyards. Not at Chateau Montelena, where chief winemaker Bo Barrett doesn’t favor aggressive leaf-thinning — the grapes had plenty of shade until the harvest was finished in mid-October.

This 2010 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay is a combination of lush California fruit and a firm flinty finish that almost reminds me of Chablis. I tasted the wine on a visit to the Napa Valley a couple of weeks ago, soon after the winery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But I opened another bottle this past weekend to drink a toast to Jim Barrett.

Top photo composite:

Jim Barrett and label from 2010 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Credit: Courtesy of Chateau Montelena.