Robert Parker himself has dubbed her the first lady of wine
and Time Magazine once called her “the wine diva of Napa,” and with a pedigree and resume as storied as Heidi Peterson Barrett’s, there’s little reason to wonder why. Born into a family with strong roots in the winemaking world, she grew up working the vines, learning everything she could about the world she would soon arguably rule. Private and unpretentious, Barrett prefers to let her wines speak for themselves, and luckily for oenophiles worldwide, they have a very distinct voice indeed.
Growing Up Among the Grapes
Heidi Peterson Barrett was born in California to a winemaker/scientist father, Richard Peterson, and a mother, Fiane Brisebois Peterson, who is a respected artist. As a teenager, she spent her summers learning the industry from the roots up, tending the vines, sorting cuttings and participating in bottling at vineyards in Napa Valley and Monterey. After graduating from high school, Barrett enrolled at U.C. Davis, which boasts one of America’s foremost wine education programs. While there, she spent time as an assistant to Dr. Ann Noble, who invented the now-ubiquitous wine aroma wheel, and interning at one of Germany’s largest wineries, where she learned the important of balance in winemaking, a skill that is terribly difficult to master and one she is revered for today.
She graduated from U.C. Davis with a B.S. in Fermentation Science in 1980, and quickly went to work. Her first job post-college was with Justin Meyer, co-founder of Silver Oak Cellars and winemaker at Franciscan, a dream position for most new graduates, but Barrett soon migrated to Australia, where she worked the crush at Lindeman’s Wines before returning home to Napa as assistant winemaker to Jerry Luper at Bouchaine.
In 1983, Heidi Barrett garnered her first winemaker title courtesy of Buehler Vineyards. She was only 25. Her unique style, which blends all the exacting precision of science with a clear passion for the artistic side of winemaking, soon led to a deluge of critical acclaim, and the demand led Buehler to more than triple its previous 6,000-case production to a staggering 20,000 cases.
Building the Barrett Brand
Heidi Barrett left Beuhler in 1988 and began to offer her considerable talents as a freelance winemaker. Her freewheeling ways lasted all of a week, as she was quickly snapped up by Gustav Dalla Valle, where she would reign as winemaker for the next eight years. During her time at Dalla Valle, she began creating the kind of rich, bold cabernet sauvignons she would become famous for. Her “Maya,” a cult and critical favorite, received perfect scores from Robert Parker in both 1992 and 1993, inspiring record-breaking bids at the Napa Valley Wine Auction.
Never one to sit on her laurels, Barrett began producing for Screaming Eagle in 1992, again receiving a duo of perfect 100-point Parker scores, this time in 1992 and 1997. A 6-liter bottle of her 1993 Screaming Eagle cabernet fetched the highest price for a single bottle ever — $500,000.
In the past several decades, Barrett has developed a staggeringly impressive resume that includes positions with Paradigm, Amuse Bouche, Kenzo Estate, Vin Pedu, Fantesca, David Arthur, Revana, Showkey, Vineyard 29, Diamond Creek and Grace Family. She is married to Bo Barrett, whose family winery, Chateau Montelena, has a history as epic as Heidi Barrett’s own. Her concentration has long been on producing superior cabernets, and this is where her ability to coax the best qualities out of this sometimes vastly overworked grape really shines through. It would be easy for Barrett’s brand to eclipse the profile of these individual vineyards, or for all her wines to start tasting the same, but somehow, although each bottling bears a thumbprint that is distinctly Barrett-esque, each wine maintains its own personality.
Though she is no longer with Screaming Eagle or Dalla Valle, two vineyards that helped propel her to the upper echelon she now calls home, her list of clients continues to expand and command attention from the winemaking community and wine aficionados alike.
Heidi Barrett – The Mermaid Swims Out on Her Own
When she isn’t creating some of the world’s most renowned wines, Barrett can often be found scuba diving, so it’s no surprise that her wine label La Sirena, which she began in 1994, translates in both Spanish and Italian as “the mermaid.” The label produces syrah, cabernet sauvignon, a red blend she calls Pirate TreasuRed (sticking with the oceanic theme), and a rare dry muscat Canelli. Her wines are known for their precision and for striking a hard-to-achieve balance between power and finesse that few other winemakers come close to replicating.
“My style of winemaking is to emphasize the unique character of that vineyard,“I want to keep each wine pure and help each to be the best it can be. My specialty and my focus is the winery. I am involved in harvesting decisions, and I usually work closely with vineyard managers. Over the years I spend a lot of time in the vineyards. My goal is to make elegant wines, even though they may be powerful. If you balance all of the components of a wine, it is elegant. By working toward balance, I am seeking to harness raw power into something stylish and elegant.”
The Heidi Barrett Legacy
Her success can be easily attributed to her attitude: Barrett herself said it best, “It is important to have diverse knowledge in all aspects of winemaking. You can’t just step in and be the winemaker unless you have adequate experience in the cellar and the vineyards. I wanted to make sure that when I finally had the title of winemaker, I had earned it.”
Sipping a glass of La Sirena cabernet sauvignon, breathing in the rich, dense fruit, wreathed in the subtle aroma of espresso and spice as the slippery, palate-tingling tannins swirl by, it’s hard for anyone not to agree that she has, in fact, earned it.