Onward and Upward in Wine, Art and AVIATION

For a highly in-demand independent winemaker with a client list of 10 ultra-premium brands in four far-flung AVAs, the fastest possible commute is by air. Make that a metallic sky blue Robinson R44 helicopter vineyard vehicle that you pilot yourself, to be exact.

In the Sky

Heidi Barrett’s scientist-winemaker father, Dr. Dick Peterson, was a pilot in the military, and she “always wanted to learn to fly.” That desire and practicality came together during her early winemaking days at Buehler Vineyards when there was talk about a guy in the neighborhood who would fly himself to work in San Francisco every day. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever and knew that I wanted to do that someday.” Thirty years passed before work and motherhood allowed time for flight training and exams. Now, Barrett fondly recalled her first
solo flight in a rented training helicopter to pay a surprise visit to the lofty Kenzo Estate, where a warm reception by the entire team awaited. “They looked at me like a martian had just landed,” Barrett laughed. “It was a lifetime dream to fly myself to work in a helicopter; it’s a lot of fun, and it saves me so much time.”

Impressive, indeed! Yet, in modestly dismissing “brave” as a description, Barrett explained that “cautiously taking calculated risks” is a more accurate representation of her adventurous spirit. In pursuing passions for helicopter flying, scuba diving, skiing, landscape painting — and winemaking, of course — she said, “You look carefully at conditions, make assessments, and then you do it because it’s a blast when you do.”

Under the Sea

That list of passionate interests is even longer still. Since 1994, La Sirena has been Barrett’s own wine label. Represented by a mermaid and bottled in blue, the wine’s imaginative styling pays tribute to “two of the things that I love combined,” she said. “There’s the magic element of the mermaid and the magic of wine. So, we had some fun with the label, borrowing from Opus One, where you see both Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in profile, facing opposite directions. So, our label designer used my profile for the mermaid artwork, and I get to say that it’s me from the neck up.”

On the Ground

Barrett described her small-production, artisanal wines as elegant and balanced with a touch of whimsy. La Sirena specializes in producing a flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, the varietal with which Barrett is most closely associated, having famously made some of the world’s very best, including Screaming Eagle. Barrett also focuses on wines that she personally enjoys making and drinking. “I’ve had a lot of fun with the creative side of the classics, and I do love making other things too, looking for something with a little different twist. And in some ways, I feel challenged to make something that’s more obscure into something truly good with a commitment to doing it right. Like a Muscat that’s surprisingly dry, with all the beautiful floral perfume but without the sweetness one expects. And a full-bodied Malbec that’s not typically offered on its own in Napa and Sonoma. Or a Syrah that has none of the angular structure and, in fact, blends well with Cabernet. I’ve also been playing with Grenache and a Primitivo that makes a beautiful rosé — it’s a cousin to Zinfandel, similar but more delicate.”

In keeping with the underwater theme, Barrett’s Pirate TreasuRed is a lush deep ruby wine with ripe plum and berry aromas accompanied by notes of fine leather, toast, and spice. It’s a multi-layered, complex blend of seven reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Sirah that’s big but not heavy for pairing or drinking on its own.

At the Studio

Intrigued? “Come see us,” said Barrett. “Really fun La Sirena tours and tastings are hosted by Hospitality Director David Schulze by appointment at Joseph Cellars in Calistoga where I do custom crush. In the Tasting Room, you’ll also see some of the artwork I’m doing for wine labels and our new Studio Series in its first vintage. While lots of wine labels do have artwork, I think it’s something different to have the winemaker creating the label art.”

Heidi Barrett’s connection to art is a lifelong one. Growing up in the Napa Valley with an artist mother, Diane Brisbois Peterson, painting has counted among her passions since childhood. “I have often compared the art of blending to painting, like having more colors on my palette and palate.” Barrett said, “In both, the artist uses different hues (flavors) to create something truly unique and delicious…I sought to capture the thrill of art as a tribute to artists everywhere who strive to create beauty.” Working in lustrous acrylics on canvas (“less toxic than oils and water-soluble”), vineyards are a favorite subject. She’ll paint in a home studio from memory, from photos, or go to open workshops where painting with others provides more ideas. Barrett described her work as “bold, colorful, flamboyant, and whimsical — inspired by Henri Matisse and his foundational work, ‘The Joy of Life.’” In addition to wine country landscapes, another favorite theme to explore is action: people, horses, and so on. Heidi Barrett’s artwork, simply framed in light wood, can be found at Aerena Galleries & Gardens online and at locations in Napa, St. Helena, and Healdsburg.

First Lady of Wine

It’s easy to understand why Heidi Barrett’s star-studded client list is frequently the subject of interviews and how she earned the nickname “First Lady of Wine” from wine critic Robert Parker. Barrett can point not only to being the original winemaker at Screaming Eagle (1992-2006) but also to long associations and current ones, crafting ultra-premium wines including Dalla Valle (1988-1996), Paradigm (since 1991), Lamborn (since 1997), Kenzo Estate (from the launch), Fantesca, and some partnership brands: Amuse Bouche, Au Sommet, Vin Perdu, and Prêt à Boire.

“While I’m truly proud and honored of past accomplishments, that was some time ago, so I don’t dwell on it. However, I do prefer to look ahead and be excited about the things I’m working on today, like La Sirena and Barrett & Barrett, which I make with my husband, Bo Barrett (of Chateau Montelena, who Chris Pine played in the 2008 film Bottle Shock.) There’s also Aviatrix, under the La Sirena brand, with my helicopter illustrated on the label. This startup brand is dedicated to exploring new varietals and AVAs outside of Napa, giving us the freedom to offer interesting and fun new wines at affordable price points. Aviatrix is a collaboration created with my two talented daughters (winemaker Chelsea and sales/marketing director Remi), and it’s a tribute to gutsy women.”

It was mid-harvest at the time of the interview with Barrett, but she was able to offer some insights on the 2021 outlook. “These are precious times, and everyone is very grateful and so relieved to have anything delicious to pick. We got started a little early up valley, and we’re picking Cabernet in October. Things are very compressed at the moment, with everyone picking at the same time. As expected in a drought year, it’s quality over quantity; concentrated, smaller berries.”

A Perfect Day

Lastly, when asked what a perfect day off might look like for this very busy winemaker, Barrett replied, “Eventually, when I do get a day off, it will be sunny and start with swimming in a pool, which I love. Then, there’d be a yummy lunch, and I’d enjoy puttering in my vegetable garden. Finally, an afternoon in an art studio would be wonderful before cooking dinner outside with my husband, as we frequently do. The other essential things that would figure into this perfect day are wine, naturally, and time spent enjoying my adorable granddaughters.”


Story By: Laurie Jo Miller Farr // Photos By: Suzanne Becker Bronk