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  • Writer's pictureMelissa L. Smith

Dream Cellars: Heidi Barrett

Collector: Heidi Barrett

Location: Calistoga

Number of Cellars: 1

Date: December 2020

Okay, wow. Heidi Barrett. There has never been a collection that I have worked on, or a restaurant that I have worked in, that hasn’t held at least one of the wines that she’s made. These wines are collected, coveted, and rarely brought out of hiding unless there is a grand occasion to open one of these almost priceless bottles. (A partial breakdown of her timeline and career highlights are at the bottom of this piece.)

2020, has given us all of the reasons to open something special. A pandemic. Fires. Country and world instability at large.

I talk a lot about mindful wine consumption. From the grape growing, to the wine making, to the purchasing, to the moment you open the bottle, pour a glass, and sit down with it. For those of us fortunate enough to have access to these bottles, now is as good a time as any. Natural disasters and other things far beyond our control, make you realize that nothing is guaranteed, and we must find joy, adventure, pleasure, and connection wherever we can.

I’ve just wrapped up my annual review of the highlights, and the lows, of 2020. For a year that was completely derailed, there were so many good moments, so many great meals made at home, and so many opened bottles of wine. I know I wasn’t the only one that used SiP as an excuse to drink through the cellar, and I was grateful for the excuse to open bottles that had been collecting dust over years of storage. So often I have clients that are outliving their collections, or friends that never find an occasion special enough to open their prized bottles.

Now, and if it weren’t for Covid I don’t know when I would have had the time or opportunity to ask Heidi Barrett, THE Heidi Barrett, to let me talk to her about her collection. There is no other winemaker who’s wines consistently show up in wine cellars and the fine dining restaurants I’ve spent time in since 1998, more than Heidi’s. My first big deal collection that I was hired to inventory and appraise, was filled with Screaming Eagle,

This is a woman who is a celebrity in our industry, but is wildly down to earth and humble. She lives her life in the sky as a helicopter pilot, on the land in vineyards and caves, and in or by the water, fishing and scuba diving. She’s married to Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena (a winery that is intrinsic to my personal history in this industry). Our paths probably crossed several times while I was living in Napa Valley in my early days as a chef, and I would have had no idea I was in the presence of greatness, and that twenty years later, there would be no mistaking her.

In going above and beyond for the sake of journalism, I sought out a bottle of 1998 La Sirena Sangiovese, and had it overnighted from Florida to Oakland where I waited for my birthday to open the bottle with my husband and parents in an outdoor celebratory dinner from Bellanico. The cork disintegrated, but I know better. Some of the best bottles of wines I've had are missing a quarter due to evaporation over decades, or corks that have been infested by live termites, but have left a gorgeous Riesling unaffected. I gently strained the wine into a decanter, and in a moment of solitude, poured myself a taste before joining them outside.

1998 was the year I moved to Napa Valley, the week I graduated high school to become a chef. I knew nothing about wine, and was thrown into the deep end of the industry. Part of me wishes that I could remember more details of those days, part of me embraces my ignorance. It was a rough and magical few years in which I was in over my head, but I wouldn't stop doing everything that I could to make the absolute most of the opportunity. That included tasting wines at wineries that didn't question if I was underage, and buying wines based on their labels at local retailers.

I can't remember why, but I was fairly obsessed with Sangiovese, and when Heidi and I were talking, she too recalled Sangiovese being all the rage in the 90's. Which is how she initially began making her own wine. In 1994, Dennis Cakebread had passed on a lot of Sangiovese from Juliana Vineyard in Pope Valley (which sold for $17 million in 2000). It was a hot vintage (1998 has famously been panned, yet the wines are absolutely stunning twenty years later *pro tip*), and Heidi had access to a custom crush facility, so she went to the bank and got a loan to make her first wine under her own label. She made 240 cases and started her brand. Twenty three years later, it's bright and pretty, with stable dust and raspberries. It was absolutely gorgeous with the Swiss Chard Malfatti with Browned butter, fried sage, and Grana Padano cheese. I appreciate whomever bought and took care of this bottle for two decades.

Heidi and I caught up for this interview over Zoom. Having been friends on Facebook for years, this was my first opportunity to get to know her on a more personal level. The video of Bo waving the American flag to fire responders flying over their home in Calistoga still gets me choked up.

  1. How were you impacted by the fires?

    1. We had virtually no pickable grapes (12 acres cab, 2 acres syrah) 100% smoke damage. We have half an acre on Old Toll of usable dry muscat, no Barrett & Barrett will be made. The fire was within a half mile from our property, Old Toll was within 300 yards, we had sprinklers on the guest house in the middle of the vineyard. There was a lot of clean up. Bo never left the property. My lungs made me leave. I had bad pneumonia for a month in January of 2018 after being so compromised by the smoke from the 2017 fires. My lungs are susceptible, so I have to be extra careful with the virus.

  2. How have you been impacted by Covid?

    1. Months of no visitors at the winery, and then moving from inside to outside with the changing policies and dealing with the cold, and some people are too scared to travel. It's great that people are so excited when they do come, that they usually buy wines and have a great time. We figure it out day by day how to make the most of it.

  3. Did you learn any new skills or cooking projects?

    1. I did an online art class. I joined a group of ladies for a seminar on style and organization, and pared down to the stuff I really love. We've done a lot of gardening projects, expanded our garden, and added raised beds. We've fed ourselves from the garden and hardly had to go to the grocery store.

  4. What are some memorable meals that you've cooked this last year that you've paired with the wines that you've made?

    1. Roast wild duck w Barrett & Barrett Cab- in a word, yum.

  5. Do you eat a lot of fish, or do you fish primarily for sport? What are your favorite wines to pair with what you catch, and what are your favorite ways to prepare your catch?

    1. We caught some rainbow trout at Hat Creek in August, and had it grilled with a squeeze of lemon from one of our trees, and pinch of sea salt paired with La Sirena Chardonnay- delish

  6. When did you get into wine collecting?

    1. Our collection is a combination of what both Bo and I have made over our careers. Stuff going back into the 70s and 80s. Some of the Buehler's are close to 40 years old, but they're still holding up okay. They're definitely older, but they're still beautiful.

For me, I collect a little bit of everything that I've made, almost as an educational thing to see where they are going to go, and if I'm on the right track. I want age-ability but I want them to drink beautifully up front. Alcohol has been too high in some. I want optimum ripeness, but nothing hot. I'm really into balance and finesse, nothing that is aggressive in something that is supposed to be big and rich and beautiful. Seeing how and when the fruit fades, and the oak, all just helps me to fine tune my wine making.

We also collect our friend’s wines. I really love to share wine with other people and to get their input.

I love Rhone wines, Syrah, Grenache. We tend to buy them and drink them. And wines from the Mosel, we look for them when we go out, especially the drier styles.

We just did the inventory a year ago. It's quite the assortment. Most of our collection is at our home and there's a palate of mixed stuff from the fire in 2017 when the fire came right to our mailbox that we hauled off in a Montelena van to a warehouse, including all of my Screaming Eagle that need to be consolidated again.

Our cellar is really a crawl space built into our house which is on the side of a hill with some really nice wine racks, and an area for my current releases to keep on hand for deliveries and samples.

  1. What was your first purchase?

    1. There was always wine around, including my winemaker allocation. There are some wine from our tasting group going back 40 years. I never really needed to purchase wines. There's wine constantly coming and going.

  2. What inspired you to start collecting wine?

    1. It just shows up. We've acquired wine versus collecting it. But I do love having my own collection of stuff that I've made and that Bo's made for my own use.

  3. How have your tastes changed?

    1. I always like well made wine no matter where it’s from. True to type. Clean, enjoyable, if ageability is a factor.

  4. What are your most prized bottles?

    1. Some of the 100 point ones. I can’t afford to get them again. But they are my most prized because they are personal triumphs in a way. Not exactly trophy bottles, but they're accomplishments. And some really old funky stuff that my dad made, and German wines from interning in the 70s.

  5. How, and how often do you enjoy wines from your collection?

    1. A couple of times a week, mainly on the weekends. I'll taste for winemaker notes during the week. Bo drinks more than I do. Bo opens everyday, I might have a sip or two.

  6. Do you collect anything else?

    1. We have a really fun art collection around the home. Old Mexican bowls and plates. Our house is a mixture of Cal/Mission/Italian/Tuscan style with bright bold colors. Mermaids sneak in there, and fish things.

  7. How do you track your inventory?

    1. Computer program from Montelena in an Excel spreadsheet, and we keep a sheet downstairs. We sold a bunch with an auction house recently. It was a quality for price decision. The marks were so high, and now we have room to bring the other wines back in. Part of the cleaning out process.

  8. What is your best wine memory?

    1. There's been so many, I don't have just one.

  9. Do you belong to any tasting groups? What bottles do people bring?

    1. One, it’s a group of winemakers called ReBoVar (Red Bordeaux Varieties). If it's your month to host you source the wines; it's a blind tasting, no vintage, no variety, 6-8 wines. We've been together for 30 - 40 years.

  10. Do you bring wines to restaurants or do you order off of their list?

    1. We normally order off of list, unless it’s a special birthday or special occasion then we'll bring something, and if we bring something, we buy something as well

  11. What type of stemware do you use at home?

    1. Riedel

  12. Do you gift wine from your collection?

    1. Yes, often from our collection, or something I've made or one of my clients.

  13. How do you organize your collection?

    1. By producer, vintage, case racks, and verticals stored in the wine library.

  14. How do you stay on top of your collection as far as knowing what to drink when, and not waiting too long, or opening them before their time?

    1. I have a little pile by the door of mixed cases; green light 'drink anytime' by the door, and a small wine fridge in the kitchen of day drinkers, sparkling wines, and dessert wines.

  15. Any favorite wine education tools?

    1. We don’t subscribe to any of them. And I don’t hear about the reviews unless someone says something to me or saves an article for me, because they are such a big distraction from what we do, it's not our focus.

  16. Bucket list wine regions to visit?

    1. I would love to get to South America, and Patagonia for a fishing trip, and why not go to Argentina and Chile on the way?

  17. Favorite wine regions visited?

    1. The Mosel is spectacular, Rhine river cruise is so beautiful and tasting the wines along the way is just great.

  18. What do you think of people collecting your wines?

    1. It's highly complementary. There's a responsibility with those wines, that the wines will age well and they will be happy after spending that money. There is a trust factor as a winemaker. I want the wines to over deliver and never disappoint. I want there to be a wow factor.

Timeline and Highlights

UC Davis (1980) - where she assisted Dr. Ann Noble, the developer of the Wine Aroma Wheel; Interned in Germany, and graduated with a B.S. in fermentation science.

Buehler (25 yo/1983-1988) ~ First wine making position; 20 years later she’s flying a helicopter to her consulting gigs

Marrying Bo Barrett - June 1985

Dalla Valle/Maya (Gustav Dalla Valle) - (30 yo/1988 -1996) 1st consultant role - 2 100pt RP scores (92 & 93 Maya)

Paradigm (Ren Harris ~ Jean Philip’s real estate agent partner) - (1991) - Original Winemaker

Screaming Eagle (Jean Philips ~ Gustav’s real estate agent) - (1992-2006); 2 100pt RP scores (92 & 97); A 6L of '92 Screaming Eagle was sold at auction for $500,000, the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine.

La Sirena (1994)

Barrett & Barrett (2008) ~ "Bo definitely does more of the farming and I do more of the day-to-day winemaking and then we overlap on pick decisions as well as blending."

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