Judgment of Paris: the tasting that changed wine forever
(CNN) – In a Parisian hotel 45 years ago, some of France’s foremost wine experts gathered for a blind tasting.
The best French wines came up against upstarts from California. At the time, it didn’t even seem like a fair competition – France made the best wines in the world and Napa Valley wasn’t on the map yet – so the result was taken for granted.
Instead, the greatest tale of the underdog in wine history was about to unfold. Californian wines performed well with the judges and won in the red and white categories, beating the legendary chateaux and estates of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The only reporter present, George M. Taber of Time magazine, later wrote in his article that “the unthinkable happened”, and in an allusion to Greek mythology called the event “The Judgment of Paris”, and so he would be known forever.
“It was a game changer,” says Mark Andrew, wine expert and co-founder of wine magazine Noble Rot, “and it has propelled California wine to the top of the fine wine discussion.” The wine had reached its decisive moment.
A trip to California
British wine expert Steven Spurrier, right, came up with the idea for a blind tasting competition.
WATFORD / Mirrorpix / Getty Images
The tasting was designed by British wine merchant Steven Spurrier, who died in March 2021 at the age of 79. “He was a legend,” said Andrew, who had known Spurrier for 15 years. “He was an open-minded guy who really knew wine, based on its quality and intrinsic value rather than reputation.”
In the early 1970s, Spurrier had a wine merchant in Paris and a wine school next door called L’Academie du Vin. Both were aimed mainly at non-French speakers and were located on the right bank of the Seine, where most of the banks and foreign companies were located.
Spurrier liked to showcase wines from countries other than France in the shop and at school – an act of real rebellion in Paris – and thought of a tasting as a way to promote his business.
Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher, an American partner of Spurrier, visited wineries in California in 1975 and was impressed with the increasing quality of their offerings. She suggested looking into these wines for tasting and having it take place on the bicentennial of the American Revolutionary War of 1776. She also encouraged Spurrier to travel to California himself, to choose a few worthy candidates.
And so, in early May 1976, Spurrier and his wife Bella left for San Francisco for a wine tour. The tour was hosted by Joanne DePuy, a resident and connoisseur of Napa, who gave a tour of the Spurriers. “Steven wanted to go to the small wineries,” she told CNN. “He had a very good palate and he bought the wines he liked at a high price.”
Bottles on an airplane
The American wines were brought in with a group of 30 Californian winemakers.
Harold Dorwin / National Museum of American History / Smithsonian Institution Archives
DePuy was instrumental in setting up the tasting, as Spurrier realized that carrying two dozen bottles of wine with him on a plane would be difficult, and that there was a risk of having them kept. at the customs. Instead, he asked DePuy to take the wine to Paris, as she had a French wine tour scheduled for mid-May, with 30 California winemakers traveling with her. The bottles could be carried as a personal allowance.
“A bottle broke,” she recalls. “Steven arrived to meet me in his usual white suit. We were waiting for my luggage and cases of wine. I smelled it before I saw it – one of the crates was red on the outside and I said, ‘Oh my.’ But Steven was very nice. He said, “It’s okay, no problem.” He had at least two bottles of each wine. “
The tasting, now six months in the making, was scheduled for May 24, 1976 at the Intercontinental Hotel, not far from the Spurrier store and school. Among the nine judges, all French, were Odette Khan, editor-in-chief of a prestigious wine magazine, and Aubert de Villaine, director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a Burgundy estate that produces some of the best wines in the world and more expensive.
The fateful day
Bottles of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, then largely unknown in Europe, were part of the tasting.
Jacqueline Romano / Getty Images for SOBEWFF®
Spurrier had no intention of causing a sensation or humiliating his French judges. He wanted little more than to create recognition for California wines and generate publicity for his school. But he found a way to make things more interesting: he picked the top four Burgundy white wines and the top four Bordeaux red blends from his cellar to go against the American wines, and covered all the labels.
“It wasn’t until about the last minute that Steven decided to change the test from an open test to a blind test. Blind tastings are common now, but back then , it was a very innovative way to compare and contrast wines. ” Andrew said.
Among the French wines selected by Spurrier were Batard-Montrachet, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion – the elite of good wine. California offerings, 12 in total, included Ridge Vineyards, Freemark Abbey, Spring Mountain, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and Chateau Montelena – all of which were largely unknown in Europe.
Journalist George M. Taber was given a card with the names of the wines served, so he knew exactly what the judges were tasting. He soon realized that things were getting interesting when one of the judges tasted a white wine and proclaimed, “This is definitely California. He has no nose,” while he was really tasting. Batard-Montrachet, a Chardonnay from Burgundy often classified as such. of the best white wines in the world.
The unthinkable was indeed happening.
When Spurrier counted the scores, it turned out that California had dominated the white wine category, with a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena as the winner and three American wines in the top five. In the red category, a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars came out on top, just ahead of a 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild from Bordeaux.
It was a David vs. Goliath result, with much cheaper and younger wines unexpectedly getting a higher rating. Chateau Montelena was selling for around $ 6.50 a bottle at the time, a small fraction of the cost of its French rivals; Stag’s Leap had been founded just six years earlier, in 1970, when winemaking at Château Mouton-Rothschild had lasted three centuries. Both winners were from Napa Valley, which would become one of the world’s premier wine regions.
The French judges were far from impressed with the results. Odette Khan unsuccessfully asked for her scorecard, according to Taber, so the world wouldn’t know how she rated the wines, while Aubert de Villaine later described the event as “a kick back for French wine “.
The children of the sticks
The result of the tasting was considered a result of David versus Goliath.
Courtesy of Bella Spurrier
Joanne DePuy remembers when she heard the news. She was also in France, tasting wine with Californian winemakers. In his group were Jim and Laura Barrett, owners of Chateau Montelena.
“We were at a wine estate in Bordeaux, sitting down for lunch, when Jim Barrett got called on the phone,” she recalls. “I thought it was surely one of his children, because no one knew where we were. But after taking the call, Jim came to see me and whispered to me: ‘Our wine won in Paris. . “”
The appellant was, in fact, George M. Taber, looking for a quote from Barrett for his report. This quote is now entrenched in the Paris Judgment tradition: “Not bad for the children of the sticks,” Barrett said, using colloquial American language for a remote or rural area.
DePuy was desperate to share the news with the rest of the group, but as they were seated with around 50 French wine merchants, she said nothing instead. “After lunch, we got on the bus and walked down a long, tree-lined lane – which I can still see in my mind. We turned the corner and everyone started screaming and screaming and hugging. It was amazing, ”she says.
A seismic moment
Winemaker Jim Barrett described the win as: “Not bad for the children of the sticks.”
National Museum of American History / Smithsonian Institution Archives
The tasting changed the history of New World wines, coming from outside of traditional wine regions such as France, Italy and Spain.
“In 1976 California wine was a baby, in global terms and certainly compared to the great wines of Europe, and wines from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Chile were conceptually a very thing, very new to the European drinker, ”says Andrew.
Tasting was a seismic moment in modern wine history, according to Andrew, as it demonstrated that not only New World wines deserve special attention, but that many of France’s greatest palates – in a tasting scenario blind – actually preferred them.
“We still see today that the shelves of independent wine merchants and the wine lists of great restaurants are full of Californian, Australian and South African wines, and we are entitled to ask ourselves the question – would it have happened too quickly and also significantly? as he did, wasn’t it for Steven and the tasting he did? “
The Paris judgment was reproduced numerous times after 1976, some by Spurrier himself, and with remarkably similar results.
In France, the tasting raised more than a few eyebrows and a few questions about the process and wine selection, with most Bordeaux producers claiming their wines were too young to be at their best.
Its meaning, however, is unblemished.
Bottles from Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars like the ones that won the competition are now part of the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. And a 2008 film, “Bottle Shock,” tells a strongly fictionalized version of the story, starring Alan Rickman as Steve Spurrier.
Bella, Spurrier’s wife, who took the only existing photos of the event, told CNN the tasting had a huge impact on her late husband’s life. “He was proud of it, but he never imagined at the time the effect it would have. His goal was simply to present wines that he considered wonderful and well made to a wider audience,” she says. .
“Each wine had a story, he said, and that’s what he discovered in California. Much to the world’s surprise at the time.