Napa's Most Famous Winemaker Rides a Helicopter to Work
Heidi Barrett, a winemaker at over half a dozen different wineries in the Napa Valley, is the woman behind some of California's best cult wines.
Photos by the author.
Heidi Peterson Barrett is a very busy person. When she pulls up to meet me at Jericho Canyon Vineyard, where she rents winemaking space here in the sunny foothills outside Calistoga, CA, I can hear her talking over a speakerphone in her little European car, going over her schedule for the rest of the day. As the winemaker at over half a dozen different wineries in the Napa Valley and one of the most prominent female winemakers in the region, her early autumn days are filled with visits to several different tucked away places like this, where she glides confidently in and out of cellars and caves, tools in hand, silver mermaid pendant dangling around her neck, focused on the wellbeing of her newborn wines.
She greets me with a warm smile and leads me into the winery, where a bunch of workers are already tending to the newly harvested grapes. Her arrival is met with a buzz of energy from the staff, and I can't help thinking that this is what it must be like inside a beehive when the Queen shows up.
Everyone doubles down on their task at hand, and we move to a quiet corner of the cool, stone room to talk. I am immediately struck by the confidence she exudes. She seems to me like a person who is used to making the right decisions, and I am eager to talk with her about her hall-of-fame career, her illustrious winemaking family, and the reasons why The Wine Advocate's Robert Parker anointed her "the first lady of wine."
MUNCHIES: You've been a winemaker here in the Napa Valley for over 30 years now—and actually your father was somewhat of a pioneer in the California wine industry, which made me wonder if you remembered the first time you ever tasted wine. Heidi Barrett: Not specifically, no. Not like the exact moment, because I really just grew up with it. I was probably two when I first tried it, and who can remember anything when they're two.
Especially if that two-year-old has been drinking. Ha—no, no, just sips, just sips. But yeah, it was always shared as a part of the whole family experience. I remember my sister and I had our own little wine glasses at the table, so we could cheers along with the family. And of course I did the same with my daughters—actually, I still have their little beginning baby wine glasses, but it's like in Europe, where from a young age, all the kids drink this thing that's half wine and half water. Except we always just got the straight stuff. Because it just doesn't taste all that great when you're drinking something that's half water, as opposed to something awesome.
Is there like some secret family winemaking knowledge that gets passed down through the generations? Or is it just that culture of drinking and thinking about wine every night? I don't know, maybe? Maybe just a natural tendency or something, I don't know—I mean, people say wine is the combination of science and art, and my father was an agricultural chemist Ph.D. and my mother was an artist all her life, so yeah, maybe I'm just genetically born to do this—who knows? But I think the main thing is just practice. The Malcolm Gladwell, 10,000 hours thing. If you do something for thirty years, day in, day out, you get pretty good at it. Even if you have an average set of taste buds, you can learn to become a winemaker just by paying attention and doing it—tasting over and over again and learning from people who know what they're talking about. It's the same as food. It's just flavors. If you like the way something tastes, it's good. If you don't, it isn't. It's really as simple as that.
What were the lessons you took away from your education at UC Davis? Davis was really foundational. I mean, my professors were literally the people who wrote the books on winemaking, so it was really just the fundamentals and how everything works. How all wine is just biology doing chemistry. That's what biochemistry is. And people freak out when you talk about it like it's so complicated, but it's just these little biological creatures performing this particular kind of chemistry—yeast eating sugar [and] making alcohol. That's all it is, that's biochemistry, that's fermentation on a very simple level—and that's wine. Those are the fundamentals of life in action, and that was very interesting to me. And then there's the whole farming aspect, which is such an attractive idea—just taking something from the earth and then creating this end product that enhances life. You can't beat that.
No, I guess not. And then not long after you graduated, when you were 25, you got hired to be the winemaker at Buehler Vineyards, right? Yeah, and that was scary. I was really young, it was a big job for me, and I would think, "gosh, am I ready for this? Do I know enough?" And I remember I wouldn't sleep well, I'd wake up in the middle night and make barrell plans, you know? There was a bunch of anxiety about the whole thing, because as the winemaker, there are so many decisions to be made, and it really does stop with you. I mean, the people who hired me are really trusting me with their livelihoods, so I didn't take it lightly. And I definitely made some mistakes—not big ones—but I learned a lot and improved from there.
And I can't imagine, at the time, there were a bunch of 25-year-old female winemakers. Right. I mean, in my class at Davis, which was 1980, there were about 30 people in my class, and only four were women. And, including me, only two stayed in the business. So, not a lot. Though Rosemary Cakebread [of Napa Valley's Cakebread Cellars] was in the class ahead of me, and she's still doing amazing things. But yeah, there weren't many of us then. Though now it's much more common.
So, after a few years at Buehler, you decided to go out on your own as an independent winemaker? Yeah! When I was 30. Because by that time I'd already gotten married and was starting to raise a family. So, with baby number one, that was fine, I could still work, but with baby number two, it was kinda like, 'Alright, I need to change this up. I need to be a mom first and work my jobs around that.' And at the time, there were really three predominant independent winemakers of the day, so I called each of them up and told them what I was doing, and [asked] if they had any overflow business to consider sending it my way as this fledgling consultant. And one of those guys did end up having some work to send my way, and that was Dalla Valle, which was just getting going. And that was just such a great break for me. I clicked instantly with [the winery's late proprietor] Gustav Dalla Valle, who was such a bigger-than-life character, and he became my first client. That was 1988. And I helped put that brand on the map.
That's where you earned your first two 100-point scores from The Wine Advocate's Robert Parker, right? So, what happened after that? Well, after that I got Screaming Eagle going, which was actually just down the hill from Dalla Valle. In fact, Jean [Phillips of Screaming Eagle] was Gustav's real estate agent, and they were really good friends, so he told me to "go help Jeannie out." And the whole thing started just on a casual, hourly basis, helping her make her wine, and then boom! Out of the shoot, it just took off—and actually, at the same time, Jean introduced me to her real estate partner, Ren Harris of Paradigm Winery, and I became his winemaker. So, word just kind of spread, and pretty soon I had this whole portfolio of clients who have come and gone over the years, depending on how available I was when I wasn't being a mom. But as my kids got older, I was able to take on more clients and eventually devote myself just to the clients that I really wanted to work with.
And when the word spread, what were people saying? What is a Heidi Peterson Barrett wine? It's hard for me to completely know, but I think they like that I make elegant, balanced, age-worthy, silky wines with pure flavors that are layered and interesting but are also the real deal. I mean, with my track record, can pretty much guarantee at this point that my wines are able to age for 20, 30 years—reds, especially. And, of course, they're delicious, too.
When you had that final blend of the '92 Screaming Eagle—which Robert Parker also gave a 100-point score and was sold at auction for $500,000, the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine—did you think to yourself, That's a million-dollar wine? No. But I knew it was really good. It was kind of like, "Damn. That's really good. I don't think I can make that any better." And it was the same at Dalla Valle—both of those '92s, the Maya at Dalla Valle and the Screaming Eagle, which were my hundred-pointers that year, I remember bringing home samples of that and telling [my husband] Bo that I couldn't decide which one I liked better because they were both really, really good. And I was so proud of that. I had a great year. And then, after the fact, they both got really good scores, which was kind of validating, I guess. It was a little bit of that "I knew it" kind of feeling. Which wasn't cockiness at all—it was more just that feeling of relief that comes when people think the same way you do about a creative project like wine.
What you're working on now? Tell me about La Sirena. Well, we started La Sirena in 1994 as a custom crush project for another family. They hired me to make some sangiovese, but about halfway through the year, for one reason or another, they were gonna ditch the project and just sell the juice on the bulk market. But I thought, Aha! Here's my chance to start a label. So, off to the bank I went! I bought them out, took over the vineyard contract, and those first few years I was just making this little bit of sangiovese—just a couple hundred cases. But I'd say the label really got started in earnest in 1996, when we were two years into it, and I thought, OK, I've bit off this chunk, we've started this brand, now what do I really want to make? Of course, I thought about cab. I love making it, it's what I'm best at, so we started doing it. And we had cab and sangiovese for a couple years, but then lost the sangiovese vineyard contract in 1999 and started making syrah. So, in 2000, we came out with a syrah and have been making it ever since. We added muscat in 2003, because I always had the idea for it in the back of my mind ever since I interned in Germany back when I was still studying at Davis. I loved the rieslings and gewurztraminer I had there—just like muscat, they have such a beautiful, floral, tropical, perfumy smell—and I thought to myself, Why doesn't anyone make a dry muscat, like they make dry rieslings and dry gewurz? So, now we sell about 500 cases of muscat a year along with the syrah and the cab and now also a grenache. It's a lot of fun.
And speaking of fun, is it true that you're also a licensed helicopter pilot? I am, yes.
Um … why? [Laughs] I know, I know! But I have to say, it's been an absolute blast.
Where did that come from? Well, my dad was a pilot in the military—both fixed-wing and helicopter—so, I got introduced to that as a kid, and talk about a real-life magic carpet ride. In a helicopter, you can fly in any direction, it's totally 3-D—and actually when I worked for the Buehlers, I heard there was a guy in the neighborhood who would fly himself to work in San Francisco every day. And I thought to myself, I want to do that some day. And that idea just stuck in the bck of my head for like 30 years.
And now do you fly around to all your different jobs? Yup. I fly to all the different wineries I work for. In fact, a lot of the places I work for are all along this ridgeline, so instead of it taking hours and hours in the car, it becomes a 15-minute flight, and I'm able to visit a bunch of them in one day. And when I first started doing it, when I'd get there, all the tasting room guys, all the guys in the cellar, everyone would come out to see me land, and they'd circle around like I just landed from Mars or something, like "Who is this lady?" And I gotta say, I don't think I've ever walked taller—like, "I did it!" It took me 30 years, but I'm finally flying myself to work.
So, the dream came true. Yeah, the dream came true.
Thanks for speaking with me, Heidi.