There are wine dinners, then there are Wine Dinners. The premise of most wine dinners, of course, is for a restaurant to introduce the uninitiated to the balance of food and wine. Usually the chef creates an unusual meal to complement a selection of wines and the featured winery sends a representative to speak. But rarely do you get a winemaker or owner of a prestigious brand. However, on one recent evening, Michael Klauber of Michael's on East did.
Klauber hosted the fabulous dinner at Michael’s Wine Cellar, a destination for oenophiles. The featured winery was Chateau Montelena and the speaker was chief executive officer and winemaker Bo Barrett.
Barrett is one of the few remaining icons of the 1970s golden era of California winemaking. In fact, it was his 1973 chardonnay that bested French Burgundies in the famous Judgment of Paris tasting held in 1976. It was an earth-shattering event in the world of wine and put California wine on the same level as the French. A bottle of that vintage now resides in the Smithsonian.
In a brief interview prior to the dinner, Barrett discussed that famous tasting and his winemaking philosophy. While still involved with Chateau Montelena, he and wife Heidi now run a consulting firm, Barrett & Barrett. (Heidi gained great notoriety with her first wine, Screaming Eagle, which is still one of the most coveted California wines.)
Barrett is a very amiable, soft-spoken man, with a relaxed surfer-dude persona. That's nor surprising, since surfing, skiing and flying make up his non-winemaking hobbies. When asked about the dichotomy of his risky exploits and discipline in the vineyard, he said that his dad encouraged such activities, while his Norwegian grandfather provided the discipline. Klauber told guests how he met Barrett in 1980 while searching for wines for his father's restaurant on Longboat Key, and they have stayed good friends in the decades since.
As a young man, Barrett spent time in his Volkswagen van hanging out in Paris. There he met Steven Spurrier, retail wine shop owner, and they became friends. When Spurrier decided to hold a public tasting in Paris comparing American and French wines, he called on Barrett and fellow Napa vintner Warren Winiarski.
Barrett has since been written about in the Judgment of Paris and portrayed by Chris Pyne in the movie Bottle Shock. He told me the reason for his success is simple: no compromises. Even noted wine critic Robert Parker hailed him, saying he had established "30-year track record with no duds."
The Michael's dinner paired five Montelena wines with excellent food. The first course featured the 2019 and 2014 chardonnay. These were both vibrant and crisp, reminiscent of a great Burgundy. Seared Chilean sea bass married with the wines well. The second course featured a 2017 zinfandel, mated with a delicious roasted Kurobuta pork belly. The third course featured cabernet sauvignon “Estate” 2017 and 2007. Both were rich, full, well balanced and loaded with flavor. The 2007, at 15 years, was just coming into its own and had many more years to go.
Bob McGinn has spent his entire career in the wine industry—forming wine clubs, working in wine sales marketing and engaging in all facets of the winemaking process, including vine management, fermentation and yeast analysis. He has developed wine programs for companies such as Marriott, Sheraton and Smith & Wollensky, and consults with local restaurants. You can read more of McGinn’s work at gulfcoastwinejournal.com.