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Obituary: Barney Rhodes

Barney Rhodes, one of the founding fathers of the Napa Valley wine industry has died aged 88.

Rhodes helped to launch a host of important wineries and cemented the region’s reputation for fine wine. Industry insiders say his death marks ‘the end of an era’ in Californian wine.

Veteran Decanter columnist Michael Broadbent called Rhodes ‘the best taster I have ever known’.

A former US naval officer, dermatologist, and ultimately chief operating officer of non-profit health organisation Kaiser Permanente prior to his retirement, Rhodes planted vines on various properties. One was a former prune orchard in Oakville that later became Martha’s Vineyard – source of grapes for Heitz Wine Cellars, which Rhodes also helped to launch.

‘He and his wife Belle were an amazing pair,’ said Broadbent. ‘He was enormously influential throughout the Napa Valley. When he arrived in the 1960s, there were only about six vineyards there.’

‘They just fell in love with the business of wine,’ said Decanter contributing editor Brian St Pierre. ‘They helped create the social fabric of Napa Valley in the early days and were tremendous sponsors of all things food-and-wine related.’

Broadbent highlighted Rhodes’ generosity and commitment to philanthropy. He also aided fledgling winemakers and introduced Napa wines to members of the English wine trade, including Harry Waugh.

‘The Rhodes’ were benefactors of just about every organisation you can mention,’ said Broadbent. ‘They also had a wonderful cellar – they were around at just the right time, when Christie’s were auctioning off the great wines from the aristocratic cellars in England and Scotland.’

Rhodes, however, would have eschewed the term collector.

‘The word collector wouldn’t have passed his lips,’ he said. ‘It was his curiosity and intellect that led him to buy.’

The couple eventually bought Bella Oaks in Rutherford. Rhodes was also among the first in the US wine trade to take an interest in the Bordeaux En Primeur market.

‘I would call Belle and Barney my “parents in wine” because it was through them that I had my first experiences with really fine wine,’ said Darrell Corti, of Italian food and wine shop Corti Brothers in Sacramento, California.

‘It really is the end of an era,’ he added. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever see the likes of him again.’

Written by Maggie Rosen

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