Owner Piero Selvaggio, left, and chef Nicolo Chessa in the wine cellar at… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
When I was assigned to write the obituary for James L. Barrett, the founder of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, who died Thursday, I figured Piero Selvaggio must know him, so I reached out. He messaged to say he considered Jim Barrett a friend and to call him at Valentino later that day.
During the call, he told me about meeting Barrett soon after the Santa Monica restaurant opened and developing a friendship. Barrett came to dinner often and brought in friends and colleagues. Then one day he showed up with a bottle of wine from Chateau Montelena. Selvaggio had no idea Barrett owned the winery, but he liked the wine and from that day on the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was on the list at Valentino.
The following year, Barrett’s 1973 Chardonnay, which like the first was made by Mike Grgich, beat out four white Burgundies and five other California Chardonnays in the famous “The Judgment of Paris” blind tasting judged by French wine experts. It was the talk of the wine world and brought California wines onto the world stage. They were no longer just curiosities, but real players.
But that’s not what I found most interesting. It’s this: Sometime in 1993, says Selvaggio, he received “a 3-liter bottle of Chateau Montelena with my face etched onto the bottle. Jim had asked me to send a photo of myself previously and I had no idea why.” Selvaggio treasured that bottle, but in the earthquake of 1994 when much of Valentino’s cellar was destroyed, the bottle he cried most over was that 3-liter bottle of Chateau Montelena for its sentimental value.
Later, Selvaggio sent a note to Barrett, telling him, “Jim, I can’t believe that splendid bottle you gave me went into the river of wine on Pico Boulevard.” Two weeks later, he received another bottle with his faced etched onto it, exactly like the original except for the words at the bottom, “earthquake edition.”
"When I show guests around the cellar, I always point out that bottle, one of my most beautiful possessions. And even more precious now that Jim is gone.”
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