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Chris Barrett, Wine Country’s Rising Star

Winemaker at Pezzi King captured record two sweepstakes awards at Harvest Fair

By Tim Tesconi

Chris Barrett is a 35-year-old Wine Country wunderkind and rising star. The unassuming, self-taught winemaker at Pezzi King Vineyards in Healdsburg crafted two of the three sweepstakes winning wines at this year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair.
It’s a remarkable feat never before been achieved.

Barrett’s wines captured the Harvest Fair’s sweepstakes for red wine with the Pezzi King 2010 Row 26 Dry Creek Valley Reserve Zinfandel at $50 and the sweepstakes for specialty wines with his whimsically named,  “A Royal Rot,” a 2010 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. This spectacular dessert wine, a golden nectar with hints of honeysuckle and ripe apricot, retails for $50.

It was the first time in the Harvest Fair’s 38 year history that a winemaker – or winery – snagged two sweepstakes awards the same year. Pretty heady stuff considering that Barrett, a Santa Rosa native and 1994 graduate of Montgomery High School, has no university-training in enology and once worked as a Department of Fish & Game biologist.  Barrett learned the art of winemaking through hard work, determination and an innate curiosity that compels him to explore and experiment.

“It was an honor to win the two sweepstakes awards. It felt really good to get that kind of recognition for what we are doing at Pezzi King and to bring the awards back for the team,” said Barrett, who, in his typical modest fashion, said the sweepstakes awards represent the work of everyone at Pezzi King Vineyards. He said the estate’s incredible vineyards played the leading role in the sweepstakes wines.

“The awards are really for all the guys who work with me in the winery and vineyards. They deserve as much credit as I do,” said Barrett, who has been the winemaker at Pezzi King since 2007.  He was hired by winery owners Jim and Cynthia Rowe who earlier this year sold the 140-acre Pezzi King winery and vineyards to Ken and Diane Wilson, owners of  Wilson Winery and a half  dozen other wineries that are part of Wilson Artisan Wineries. The Wilsons retained Barrett as the winemaker, a wise move for sure.

Barrett admits he had little time to savor the sweepstake wins because the Harvest Fair came during the peak of harvest while he was frantically crushing and fermenting grapes from Pezzi King’s 65 acres of estate vineyards in the hills above West Dry Creek Road.

“It’s crazy but a good crazy because I absolutely love what I do,” said Barrett, who lives in Santa Rosa with his wife Angela, a teacher, and their sons, Bruce, 5, and Houston, 2.  Between job and family, Barrett is a busy man but retains a calm demeanor that exudes the feeling that everything is possible.

Barrett’s path from Fish & Game biologist to double sweepstakes award winner at the Harvest Fair was circuitous. After graduating from Montgomery High School, Barrett enrolled at California State University, Chico, where he earned a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. He worked for the Department of Fish & Game for a time in northern California. But Sonoma County beckoned so he took a job working in the laboratory at Vinquiry, the Windsor company that provides laboratory and technical support to the wine industry.  That experience ignited a burning interest in winemaking.

“I wanted more,” said Barrett. Afer three years at Vinquiry, he took a job as a senior wine analyst – and cellar rat - at Sonoma Wine Co. in Graton. It was wine education by emersion.

“I was dragging hoses, washing tanks and really learning the whole business. I tried to soak it all up. I got to tinker with wine samples and help in the cellar,” said Barrett. He said the exposure to hands-on winemaking couldn’t have been matched by anything he could have learned at a university. His background in chemistry – and three year stint at Vinquiry - put him in good steed to both understand and appreciate the complexities and nuances of winemaking. He was hooked.

Through a mutual friend he met Pezzi King owners Jim and Cynthia Rowe who eventually offered him a position as assistant winemaker. Within eight months, he was the head winemaker. Once arriving at Pezzi King he learned everything he could about the vineyards and the grapes they produced.

Barrett said his winemaking philosophy embraces the hands-off, traditional approach, which means keeping it simple by letting the grapes express themselves and doing little to interfere with that process.

“I know it’s cliché but great wines really do start in the vineyard,” said Barrett. “You can’t make a good wine out of poor quality grapes.” 

Fortunately, he said, for him as a winemaker, the vineyards at Pezzi King are extraordinary and produce grapes of exceptional quality and flavor.

It’s been two months since Barrett received the sweepstakes awards. He said there is still a glow from the double sweepstakes triumph. But he’s not sitting on his laurels as he oversees the new wines from this year’s crush.  He has 40 different lots of wines that he is nurturing, comparing them to young children being guided and groomed for great things, like sweepstakes and best-of-class awards.

“In the wine business, you are only as good as your next bottle of wine,” said Barrett.

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