Life Lessons with Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena

The veteran Napa winemaker tells Adam Lechmere about his lust for life, whether it’s hitting the slopes, taking to the skies or exploring the depths

Words by Adam Lechmere

Winemaker Bo Barrett poses at Chateau Montelena vineyard
Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena: ‘I always wanted to fly helicopters and planes, and be outdoors all the time’

Bo Barrett uses the word ‘fun’ a lot. As in, ‘if I sold the winery, what would I do for fun?’, or ‘flying a helicopter is way more fun than a plane’ or ‘my dad and me, we had a ton of fun’. If you didn’t know anything about the 67-year-old owner and chief executive of Napa’s Chateau Montelena, you might think he was a bit of a dilettante.

He was portrayed as such by Chris Pine in the memorable 2008 film Bottle Shock, about the 1976 Judgment of Paris, the actor taking the concept of ‘unruly and irresponsible California surfer dude’ to its most ludicrous extreme. Barrett liked Pine’s performance, even though it had nothing to do with reality. ‘No, the truth is I had quit surfing and moved to Utah to ski. And there’s nothing unruly about that. Powder skiing is a discipline; you have to be up at 5am to be the first on the mountain. I was always very disciplined if I was into the work.’

After Montelena shot to fame as a result of the Paris tasting (which is hardly mentioned during our interview – ‘Why keep on rattling the bones? It’s history’), and the then Montelena winemaker Mike Grgich had seized the opportunity to start up on his own, taking his entire crew with him, Jim Barrett (Bo’s father, who revived Montelena in 1972) had to find another winemaker and cellar team. The call was put out to his eldest son Bo, who had worked many harvests and was seen as a reliable and enthusiastic cellar hand (Bo puts this down to the fact that he has inherited ‘the crazy Norwegian farmer gene’ from his maternal grandfather).

The son’s relationship to his father was another thing the film embroidered (there may have been normal father-son tension but never a fist fight). ‘It’s a great film but it is definitely not a documentary,’ Barrett laughs. His father, who died in 2013, was tough (‘an extremely competitive, left-handed tennis-playing, chess-playing kind of guy’) and Barrett’s respect for his abilities is clear. ‘We called him our philosopher king. I was very close to him.’

Chateau Montelena shot to fame in the 1970s after beating a host of highly rated white Burgundies in the now-legendary Judgement of Paris tasting

Barrett has been winemaker since 1982 (although now he’s involved less in the everyday winemaking) and CEO since 2013. He and his wife Heidi – one of Napa’s most respected consultants, responsible for the first vintage of Screaming Eagle among many other wines (she’s also a keen helicopter pilot) – have other projects between them. Barrett & Barrett, which they were inspired to set up when it looked as though Montelena had been sold, produces Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon; Heidi Barrett has her own La Sirena label.

Barrett & Barrett operates under the motto ‘Land, Sea and Sky’. As winegrowers they ‘work intimately’ with all three elements, Barrett says. But there’s the fun stuff as well: barely a moment goes by during our hour-long interview that he doesn’t mention his love of flying, skiing, hunting or diving. He’s so completely attuned to the elements, does he ever despair at the state of the planet? He looks bemused for a moment as if despair is a concept unfamiliar to him. ‘No. Don’t worry about what you can’t change, but change what you can. Rather than despair, make an effort.’

Chateau Montelena vineyard
Barrett admits he's had plenty of offers to sell Chateau Montelena but has rejected them all – ‘Sure, I could sell up, but then what would I do for fun?’

In many ways it’s down to Barrett’s focus and discipline – plus a large dollop of luck – that Montelena is still owned by the family. In July 2008 it was announced that Michel Reybier, the Swiss owner of Château Cos d’Estournel, had bought the property. ‘It was sold. I was getting ready to move out and start my second career.’ The 2008 financial crash saved them: Reybier (who Barrett respects as ‘a tough bastard but smart and fair’) couldn’t complete on the deal and it became void.

Luck has been a constant in Barrett’s career and like all successful people he’s known how to use it. In particular he agrees that the attempted sale came at exactly the right time: he’d been keen to modernise and found his father was resisting. ‘It got my dad to let go. His letting go to the Swiss made him comfortable handing over to me and my team.’ Montelena is now run by a board made up of Barrett and his siblings and other family members. He describes it as ‘pretty solid’. Selling is out of the question. ‘People call me up and offer me stupid money all the time. Sure, I could sell up, but then what would I do for fun? I’d buy a jet and be happy for about a month and then I’d miss my farm.’

Paddleboarding – Chateau Montelena
Winemaking – Chateau Montelena
Barrett is a fan of all kinds of exercise (‘I have to keep moving all the time’), and decided to become a winemaker once he reached the age of 20

What was your childhood ambition?
I always wanted to fly helicopters and planes, and be outdoors all the time. My grandfather on my mother’s side was Norwegian and I never knew I had that crazy Norwegian farmer gene. When I graduated from high school that summer of 1972 my dad said I had to get a job, so I poured concrete for three months for $7.50 (£5.50) an hour; then I moved to the winery for a dollar an hour – and guess which career I chose? Mostly though, I was interested in making a lot of money so I could go back to Utah to ski. I grew up at 20 and decided to be a winemaker, and went to Fresno State University [to study Viticulture and Enology].

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
That ski crashes and other impact injuries stay with you longer than you think. Also, I wish I would have started putting lotion on my skin a lot earlier.

What exercise do you do?
I do heaps of exercises including walking every day, bike riding, swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, TRX [total resistance exercise] workouts. I have to keep moving all the time.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I mumble, mostly to myself. It drives my wife crazy.

Fly fishing Alaska – Chateau Montelena
Barrett's most expensive purchase is his Cessna light aircraft (left), while he dreams to be a fly-fishing guide in Alaska (above)

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
My plane and helicopter. The plane is a top-of-the-line Cessna P210. It’s super easy to fly; I took it South Dakota last week and to Mexico. The helicopter is a Robinson 44 we use for vineyards in remote places. Heidi always flies the helicopter. It’s way more fun than the plane – you have to use both feet and both hands; you’re busy all the time. You can go forwards and backwards and sideways – it’s a real magic carpet. There’s a stretch of the Russian River where you can fly low up the river. That’s illegal.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Actually, I’m pretty happy right where I am.

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
I’d probably be good at being a floatplane pilot, helicopter pilot, or fly-fishing guide in Alaska. I’ve been flying since I was a kid so I have enough experience and a focus on safety. Likewise, I’ve been fly fishing for even longer and love to be on the water.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?
My scuba gear and a compressor to fill the tanks.

Powder skiing
An extreme-sports fanatic, Barrett is keen to powder-ski in Japan, while the late former US president Ronald Reagan (right) is one of his dream dinner-party guests ('an outstanding raconteur')
Ronald Reagan – Chateau Montelena

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
To travel a lot more. I want to go to Antarctica and powder-ski in Japan.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
Don’t put trash in our oceans.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin and Ronald Reagan: all the famous great joke-tellers. Reagan was an outstanding raconteur – have a look at him telling the three-legged chicken joke on YouTube. I’ve never seen Abe Lincoln telling jokes but he certainly liked to tell long windy stories. I have the Irish storyteller gene as well but I have the curse: I can remember the punchline but forget the joke.

What’s your secret talent?
I’m a master of the jury-rig repair – typically, when equipment breaks it’s on a Saturday night, you’ve got a full load on Sunday and you can’t get the parts until Tuesday. The chillers are the most temperamental. I always believe in having spares so it’s not as bad as it was.

Irish whiskey
Irish whiskey is one of Barrett's guilty pleasures

What’s your guilty pleasure?
If it wasn’t for whiskey, the Irish would rule the world. So I feel guilty drinking Irish whiskey.

When were you happiest?
You mean after waking up every day? I’m pretty happy about that. On a more serious note, without question it was seeing my children born.

Who do you most admire?
I admire [ocean exploration pioneers] Dr Bob Ballard and Sylvia Earle for their work on the Water Planet. I also admire [fighter pilot and test pilot] Bob Hoover and [world champion aerobatic aviator] Sean D Tucker.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
A well-chosen string of profanities (see my secret talent response).

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
I would listen to [political commentator] Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and maybe [Boston punk folk band] Dropkick Murphys’ Warrior’s Code.

What’s your greatest regret?
I passed on a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve as co-pilot and Spanish translator for a Dornier DO24 flying boat tour of Mexico, Cuba and Brazil. It would have been very cool to land in Havana Bay. But it was so close to harvest I thought if I got stuck there…but it would have been unbelievable. I should have done that.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
My Brahma Aussie canvas drover hat.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
You realise we sell wine to almost every top outfit in the world? If I single one out, I’m going to get counter-fire! But let’s diplomatically go with Club 33 at Disneyland – the Indiana Jones ride after a good red wine adds a whole new dimension.

What time do you go to bed?
Around 10 pm. I’m a recreational sleeper.