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Q&A with Winemaker Bo Barrett 

Chateau Montelena CEO stops by Boise's Capitol Cellars

Famous winemaker Bo Barrett, of Chateau Montelena, was in Boise to celebrate the opening of Capitol Cellars.

Chateau Montelena

Famous winemaker Bo Barrett, of Chateau Montelena, was in Boise to celebrate the opening of Capitol Cellars.

Bo Barrett, one of the California wine world's well-known characters, is surprisingly easygoing. His father, Jim Barrett, bought the stately Chateau Montelena Winery in Napa Valley in the early 1970s. In 1976, the winery's chardonnay beat out its distinguished French competitors in a revolutionary blind tasting called the Judgment of Paris. That story was dramatized in the 2008 movie Bottle Shock, in which Barrett was portrayed as an apathetic ladies' man. In real life, Barrett is an avid skier, pilot and scuba diver married to cult winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett, dubbed "the first lady of wine" by wine critic Robert Parker.

Barrett, a longtime friend of Capitol Cellars owners Skip and Melinda Smyser, stopped by the subterranean restaurant April 23 for a sold out wine dinner. We chatted just as the apps began circling and the sauvignon blanc started flowing.

So you flew yourself in on your own plane?

Yeah, I actually got my pilot's license in 1974. I didn't even get out of Fresno State for winemaking until about 1976-77. So I've been actually flying my entire life.

That makes it convenient

Yeah, it is. I could fly out to Boise faster than I could drive to San Francisco, so when Skip [Smyser] asked me to come because they're opening up the restaurant—they've been friends of ours for a long time so I said, "Sure, I'll come out."

You describe your winemaking style as "traditional styling with California flavors," can you elaborate on that?

Basically, when we started in '72, New World wines hadn't been invented yet. So to be a success, you modeled your wines on success. So the mark of quality we used were red Bordeaux for the cabernet and white Burgundy for the chardonnay, Rhone wines for the zinfandel and Austrian wines for the riesling.

Chateau Montelena is famous for taking the top prize at the Judgment of Paris, how did that affect your winery?

You have to remember it was a really early time in American winemaking where Americans really didn't drink wine. What Prohibition did is it killed winemaking. Beer you can move anywhere; whiskey's really small and compact. So it trained Americans to drink beer and whiskey during Prohibition. Really in the early '70s people didn't drink a lot of wine, but on the West Coast, in L.A. and San Francisco, people were drinking wine and we were doing fine. But when people recognized the quality of California wine and we started being able to sell our wine in Boston or New York or Washington, D.C., it was a big deal.

What were the ramifications of that tasting around the world?

Basically what happened was the Australians said, "Well, if the Californians can do it, we can do it, too." And the South Africans and the South Americans. So we think it was a big part of the democratization of wine.

A lot has changed in Napa Valley since the 1970s, how would you describe the industry then versus now?

We have a much better grip on precision viticulture; I'd say the fundamental change has been how careful we farm now. ... We have much more gentle equipment, planting has changed quite a bit, we have closer spacing. ... On the winemaking side, we have such a better grip on the chemistry, on the microbiology, the tools that we have to make better wine.

There's a trend toward more overt, high-alcohol winemaking in California right now. What do you think is driving that trend and how do you feel about it?

We're classicists, so at Chateau Montelena we really work in classic European styling. Which when I say styling I mean the fundamental chemistry—the acid, alcohol and the PH level. The ideal alcohol, traditionally, has been 14 percent exactly, up to 14 alcohol enhances mouthfeel, over 14 alcohol accentuates bitterness. ... I think [high alcohol wines] have a place in the marketplace as a cocktail or aperitif type of thing or sitting around and having a glass of wine. But the dinner wines, they should be targeted at 14.

So, the movie Bottle Shock is based on your winery...

Well, some of it kind of happened...

Loosely based...

It's the Hollywood version, yeah. If people really want to know there's good coverage at the library. ... There's a great book called The Judgment of Paris and that's really the history of what happened. But Bottle Shock is a love story to Napa Valley wine. When they told us they were going to make the movie, I actually joked around and said, "What is it going to be, eight minutes long? Everybody knows what happened, who's going to pay to see that?" They said, "Well it's going to be like Miracle on Ice, everybody knows what happens in that one, too, but everybody went anyway." What's true about the movie is we did win the tasting, we did care about quality wine and it was pretty fun.

How did you feel about your portrayal in the movie?

It's kind of a trade-off because I was always the first one to work and last one to leave and [my character was] kind of flaky. But then again, he gets the girl so I figured it was a good trade because I didn't get the girls in those days. And we didn't really have that many, it was pretty rural.

What's the most exciting thing happening in the wine industry right now?

The most exciting thing to me is that they're making good wine in Texas now and they're making good wine in Idaho. Good wine has spread over the country. ... That's pretty cool to see Americans starting to enjoy it as a beverage and with their food and dinner.

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