Bo Barrett: The Innovation Interview

James P. “Bo” Barrett, Chief Executive Officer of Chateau Montelena Winery shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and Chateau Montelena.

James P. “Bo” Barrett took over the role of Chief Executive Officer at Chateau Montelena Winery following the passing of his father, James L. “Jim” Barrett, in March 2013. Prior to becoming CEO, he served as Master Winemaker for over 30 years. Bo’s career in the wine industry began in the summer of 1972, when his family purchased the historic stone building and estate vineyards in Calistoga, California. He spent the first summer working in the old vineyards, pulling star thistle and picking up rocks in preparation for replanting.

Bo has been involved in every vintage at Chateau Montelena since the winery’s rebirth 1972. His intimate knowledge of the Estate vineyard, gained over 40 years, provides him with a wealth of experience that allows him, year after year, to “bring the vintage and the vineyard to your table in a wine that is elegant, balanced and enjoyable.”

In 1976 Bo transferred to Fresno State University, where he was an honors student in Viticulture and Enology. As 1981 drew to a close, Chateau Montelena’s Winemaker left to pursue other opportunities and Bo was offered the job by his father, the winery’s Managing General Partner. “When I told my dad I would think about it, I was concerned about what it would do to our relationship. I thought about it for two days and finally told him that I would need to have the freedom and professional respect he had shown the previous winemakers. He agreed, and that’s how it’s was.”

When not making wine, Bo enjoys flying, scuba diving, skiing, and spending time with his wife, Heidi, and his three children.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

I define innovation in the broad sense as ‘A New Idea’. More specifically, it is a non-obvious and not previously existing solution to a problem or improvement to any process.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

The Government Bureaucracy. Those people are afraid of their own shadows.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

This is a tough one. Today: I’ll go with “A man’s got to know his limitations”.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

Finding a job I would do for free and making a good living at it. And marrying the right woman.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

Both. However, I don’t read newspapers as often as I used to – I’m constantly on the go, so digital is easier to access and carry around, but at the same time, the local papers have such a homey old-school feel. Not to mention an iPad isn’t as good at wiping off lunch burrito drippings. That being said, things are definitely moving to digital.

How do you balance heritage and technology during the winemaking process?

Easily. If the new technology makes the wine better we use it, if not we stick with traditional methods and equipment. The old saw “don’t be a slave to fashion” works both ways. Back in the early ‘70s, my father’s goal was to make First Growth wines at Chateau Montelena Winery, and that remains true today, over 40 years later. We take the incredible fruit from this historic piece of land and try to make the best wine that we possibly can. Ultimately the “balance” between heritage and technology is found in what allows us to produce the best wine. Period.

With the advent of social media you have been able to offer wine enthusiasts a greater glimpse into the winemaking process. What technologies are you most excited about and will Chateau Montelena embrace these new trends to build a stronger relationship with their customers?

For those who have not had the opportunity to visit the Chateau but enjoy our wines from afar, social media helps provide context and allows consumers to at least experience this place virtually. I see social media as a platform that we can leverage to give consumers that “VIP” access that so many seek out and it is also an opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves from the hundreds of other wineries in the Napa Valley and thousands that exist internationally.

Video is not necessarily a “new technology”, but we are excited about where it is headed because so much about Chateau Montelena is visual and video really allows us to capture the personality of this place and the people who work here, including myself. Giving people a sense of who we are and what we do will always create stronger and better relationships with our brand.

Is Chateau Montelena currently experimenting with NFC or Augmented Reality technology to create experiences around the wine bottle?

We are in the early stages of exploring how these technologies might be incorporated into the Montelena experience. Similar to the heritage/technology balance, we want to ensure these would add value to a customer’s experience at the winery and are not merely adopted for the sake of being on the cutting-edge.

How has the wine industry changed since the 1976 Paris Tasting?

In many ways. Technology since the late ‘70s has come a long way. In 2011, for example, we completed a seismic retrofit and upgrade of our cellar. Now we have state of the art cellar with enhancements such as smaller fermentation tanks that are connected wirelessly for emphasis on precision winemaking. Now we can monitor and adjust the wine from virtually anywhere (with a wireless connection of course). Chateau Montelena Winery has been a pioneer in sustainability for over 40 years – before being “green” was trendy. So, in that sense, a lot has changed as new technologies have evolved. We run almost entirely on solar and last fall we installed EV chargers at the Chateau for those driving electric vehicles. But, regardless of how many updates we make, we are still making wine in a 130 year-old chateau. At the end of the day, technology can’t replace a gut feeling and intuition.

Since the Paris Tasting, the industry has also expanded as a whole. There are over eight thousand wineries in the United States today and over four hundred in the Napa Valley. The popularity of wine has grown and the younger generations have taken an interest – they’re buying wine and it’s becoming a part of their lifestyle, which is great for us old guys because it means we get to keep doing what we love. At the same time, many of these individuals are taking a professional interest in the business. Both of my daughters are under 30 and working in the industry, so it is pretty cool to watch them grow and forge their own paths.

How has the Chateau Montelena brand and wine been received in the newly expanding Chinese wine market?

China is a rapidly growing market and we are currently evaluating our opportunities there.

Sign up for IDEAS — Our weekly insight into innovation.