Having grown up in Northern California, my life was shaped by our proximity to the Wine Country. Chateau Montelena is one of my favorite wineries, a place I love to take visiting friends, and the producer of some of the finest wines in the world. It is with great sadness that we say fare-thee-well to the man behind the castle, Jim Barrett.
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In a week that sadly saw the death of Californian winemaker Jim Barrett, it is worth taking a look at how he helped shape the current wine market. During the course of his career he observed and aided a vast shift in public perceptions of Californian and other new world, wines.
California has a long history of winemaking, however, in the 1920s prohibition had a devastating effect leaving only a handful of wineries. In the 1960s the region was still recovering from this setback and was struggling to stamp its mark on the world market.
California was associated with sweet, low quality, port-style wines. In the 1970s, however, a new generation of Californian winemakers emerged, of which Jim was a member. New technologies were introduced and a new emphasis was placed on quality.
The wheels of change were in motion and California was starting to be recognised, in certain circles, as a producer of quality wines. It wasn’t until 1976, however, after an event known as The Judgement of Paris, that Californian wines received the attention that they deserved.
British wine merchant Steven Spurrier invited several California wineries to compete against their French counterparts in a blind tasting event in Paris. Jim Barrett was the proprietor of Chateau Montelena, whose 1973 chardonnay won first place in the white category. Another California winemaker, Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, collected the award for best red.
The results had a massive effect on the way we looked at new world wines. Where previously they had an unfair image of being low quality, The Judgement of Paris helped change public perceptions and kick-started the expansion of production of prestige wines in California.
Despite the success he enjoyed with his Chardonnay, Jim wanted to develop Chateau Montelena’s Cabernet Sauvignon, a grape variety for which California is now renowned. Fast forward to today and the new world has many regions that are associated with top quality wines. California is, by far, the largest of these and is host to many prestigious vineyards.
Walking into your supermarket, you are now spoiled for choice by the many excellent, affordable, new world wines offered. For this you can thank Jim and his Californian comrades, who upset the winemaking applecart back in 1976.
The Judgement of Paris was covered in the 2008 film ‘Bottle Shock’, so if you’re looking for a film to watch this weekend, while curled up on the sofa with a Californian red, this one is definitely worth a look.
About the Author:
Joe is an expert drinksblogger having written about a range of drink related topics over the years.
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