An Interview with Heidi Barrett

For all her fame and acclaim – winner of the first multiple 100-point scores for a Napa winemaker, the original artisan behind the cult-status Screaming Eagle, owner of her own brand La Sirena, and a very busy consulting career – Heidi Barrett is the most gracious, down-to-earth person you’d ever meet. And despite her personal successes, and the countless ways she has changed how American wine is perceived around the world, she remains a humble, passionate professional whose vision is still as focused now as it was when she was just getting started.

Cornelius Geary: You’ve had some tremendous success in your career. I’m curious how things started off for you as a young person.

Heidi Barrett: I basically lucked out in the parents department. Early on we lived in Modesto when my dad worked for Gallo. At that time, Gallo was just huge to us as kids, sort of a Willy Wonka-like factory. Then we moved to Napa Valley in the late ‘60s. My dad was a winemaker, so it was something I grew up with. When I was about 16 I started working at a grapevine nursery sorting cuttings. Then I went to UC Davis [and] applied straight away to the wine department.

Every summer I would work at a new winery. I took a couple of fall quarters off to train and do internships in Germany and Australia which helped round out my experience.

When I came back I was looking to be more of an assistant winemaker, and that’s pretty much the way it went. I just got bumped up really fast. I was running a little place by the time I was 25. I was already in the hot seat. It went pretty fast.

CG: What was the first significant moment that put you on the map as Heidi Barrett, the successful winemaker?

HB: By 1988 I had started a family. I had the two girls. From there, I needed to work more part-time, so I threw my hat in the ring as an independent consultant.

My first client that came along was Dalla Valle. It was brand new. Joe Cafaro was making the wine. He had two vintages, but nothing released yet. Within a few years I started picking up other clients. One of them was Screaming Eagle. Again, it just didn’t exist, brand new; nobody knew what those two brands could become.

They both started getting pretty good reviews right away. In ’92 I got back-to-back 100-point scores for both of those wines: Screaming Eagle and Dalla Valle Maya, followed by a second one for Dalla Valle in ’93. All of a sudden, boom! People are really noticing what I’m doing, like, “Oh, it’s … who is behind? What’s going on?” Just like a bad penny, I just kept showing up. It’s, “Oh, you again.” “Yeah.”

I had a handful of clients by then, and as my kids went to school more full-time I could add more clients and start to weed out and upgrade.

CG: When Screaming Eagle blew up on you, what was that experience like?

HB: The owner of Screaming Eagle at that time, she was so excited. It was like having a new baby; she just wanted to show it off. She gave away a lot of the first vintage. You open your trunk, “Here, I just bottled today. Have some, have some.” At first it was friends telling friends. Even before it got a big score it was winning local tastings. It already had a pretty good buzz going on.

When it launched it came out at $75. In 1995 that was top dollar. Nobody was charging that for a wine. She really deliberated about it, talked to Gustav Dalla Valle about it. He’d say, “You’ve got to charge 75, minimum, minimum,” with his Italian accent, “minimum, minimum,” over and over to Jean [Phillips]. She did it and it went from there.

When the winery was sold in spring of ’06, the winery was selling bottles for $300 but it was going for $1,000 on the black market. Shortly thereafter they raised the price to $750. I don’t know what it’s up to now.

CG: At what point did your brand kick in?

HB: I started La Sirena in 1995. I had been hired to make Sangiovese for one of the Cakebread brothers in 1994. After three or four months their family gave me an ultimatum: “Either you stick with the family or you start your own brand, but you can’t do both.” I loved that wine and I thought, “Well, here’s my chance. Maybe I could buy it back.”

They didn’t have a brand; they just had the wine, so I bought it. I went to the bank, got a loan, borrowed money to start this whole thing, came up with the name, and within just a few months, boom, I had started.

Then in ’96, I thought, “Wow, I’ve done it. What would I start with if I had the choice? Cabernet.” That’s what I love to make. That’s my thing. I started making Cabernet for La Sirena in ’96, and again, just a couple hundred cases. Then I added other fun varieties. Now we have five wines under the La Sirena brand. Two are blends and one is a syrah-based wine called Le Barrettage. I have the Pirate blend, which is seven varieties, like treasure of the seven seas, and then one called Art Bus that’s our charity bottling from our ranch. And then I also have the dry muscat, which we added to the lineup in 2003.

CG: And even with all this, you have another project as well, correct?

HB: That’s right. Bo and I started a joint venture in ’08 called Barrett & Barrett. We just make a few hundred cases of that. The logo, I really love it. It has an old pre-Roman Lydian, and on the back label it says, “Land, Sea, Sky,” which is everything it takes to make fine wine, and also reflective of our personalities. We both exist in all three planes: We’re both scuba divers, obviously exist on the earth, and we’re pilots, so we both do “Land, Sea, Sky.”■