Tasha Brandstatter on February 19, 2017 0 Comments For most of the 20th century, nothing from nowhere could beat the wines of France. If you were a wine lover living outside of continental Europe, particularly the US, you didn’t even think of drinking domestic wine, which was generally sold in jugs and mixed with sugar. French wine was the only wine considered worthy of veneration. The 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting changed all that. In one fell swoop, two California wines soundly beat the best France had to offer, and the reverberations of that tasting can still be felt today. The Judgment of Paris changed the way New World wineries perceived themselves, and heralded the growth of the current global wine market. It’s an event that every wine lover, but most especially those who favor Californian wines, should be familiar with. The Players The Paris tasting was organized by Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant with a love of all things French. His Paris wine shop, Les Caves de la Madeleine, was famous not only for its high-quality wines, but also for l’Academie du Vin, a wine school that Spurrier started in Paris in 1973 and today has branches all over the world. The idea for the Paris tasting came not from Spurrier, however, but from his business partner, Patricia Gallagher. A US citizen, Gallagher knew there were some very good wines coming out of California. She thought hosting a tasting of Californian and French wines in honor of the American Revolution would help raise awareness of American wines while paying homage to the history of cooperation between the two countries. Although Spurrier and Gallagher both tasted the wines during the blind tasting, their scores didn’t count. Instead they brought in nine judges, many of whom were well-known figures in French wine. They included Pierre Bréjoux, Inspector General of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Board and the author of several books on French wine; Odette Kahn, editor of the Review of French Wine and Food and Wines of France; Aubert de Villaine, co-owner and “Grand Monsieur” of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, arguably the most famous winery in all of France; and Christian Vannequé, head sommelier at La Tour d’Argent, one of the most famous restaurants in Paris. Aside from the judges, there was only one journalist in attendance, George Taber from TIME. Taber wrote the original story on the tasting, as well as a subsequent book on the subject. The Wines The wines Spurrier selected for the tasting were no joke, particularly when it came to the French wines. They were: The French wines: White (Burgundy) Meursault Charmes Roulot 1973 Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin 1973 Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon 1973 Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive 1972 Red (Bordeaux) Château Montrose 1970 Château Haut-Brion 1970 Château Leoville Las Cases 1971 The Californian wines: White (Chardonnay) Chateau Montelena 1973 Chalone Vineyard 1974 Spring Mountain Vineyard 1973 Freemark Abbey Winery 1972 Veedercrest Vineyards 1972 David Bruce Winery 1973 Red (Cabernet Sauvignon) Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard 1970 Clos Du Val Winery 1972 Mayacamas Vineyards 1971 Freemark Abbey Winery 1969 If you know anything about French or Californian wine, at least a few of those names are likely very familiar to you. Spurrier chose French wines that he thought would easily outshine their New World competition. He was, after all, a French wine merchant, with no plans to start importing American wine. Since the winemakers from California were openly trying to imitate wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, Spurrier picked the best examples of both regions he could find. Three of the four Burgundies were Premiers Cru, or First Growth vineyards, and one was a Grand Cru. When choosing the Bordeaux wines, Spurrier looked for predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon blends to match up with the single-variety Cab Sauv Californian wines. Two of the Bordeaux wines, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion, are First Growth wineries, and were Spurrier’s two personal favorites. The other two Bordeaux were Second Growths. Whatever their cru, however, all the French wines came from wineries that had been operating for centuries, some owned by the same family for generations. The Californian wines, in contrast, all came from wineries started or re-opened in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, by people who’d chosen winemaking as their second or third career. They were all typical of the “new age” of Californian wine: small operations focused on making high-quality wine, rather than the mass-produced jug wine that had been so prevalent before. Without centuries of tradition to lean on, these winemakers experimented constantly to find the best grapes and winemaking methods for their particular plots of land. Another point of note is the influence of viticulture and enology research taking place at nearby UC Davis. These academic studies broke down the science behind viticulture and winemaking techniques. The university researchers then made recommendations to the wineries based on their findings. While the winemakers didn’t slavishly follow their recommendations, the partnership between US farmers and scientists helped to rapidly develop new technology and innovations still in use today. The Results The results of the blind tasting shocked not only the participants, but the United States and, eventually, France. No one — literally no one — had expected Californian wines to even stack up against French wines, let alone win both the red and white categories. For the white wine tasting, three of the top four wines were Californian, not French, with Chateau Montelena winning handily: 132 points total, nearly ten points ahead of the second-place Meursault Charmes, which received 126.5 points. For the red wine tasting, the scores were much closer than with the white wines. But that didn’t change the fact that a Californian wine won again, beating out some of the greatest wines in Bordeaux. It was the Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon that carried the day. Aftermath The Judgment of Paris tasting received an avalanche of press in the US, and it was no wonder: not only did it seem as if France was passing the torch, in a way, to Californian wine, but the story fed into the American mythos of newcomer energy and ingenuity overthrowing Old World tradition despite the odds. The Smithsonian even bought bottles of the winning wines to add to their collection. Yet both before and after the event, there have been numerous California versus France wine tastings, with similar results. Why is the Judgment of Paris tasting the one everybody refers to and remembers? While the Judgment meant a lot to American winemakers specifically, it presaged dramatic changes in the worldwide wine market, and France’s role in that market. Today, France competes for shelf space — and frequently loses — against wines from the US, Australia, Argentina, Chile, and South Africa. In France itself, young people consider wine old fashioned, preferring beer or spirits, and many of the affordable table wines that were a staple of everyday dining in France forty years ago are no longer being produced. The judgment was also an indication of how wine would be made and how it would taste in the years to come. The “mondovino,” or world of wine, relies heavily on French traditions like the use of French oak barrels for aging, while using technology and research that in some cases serves to cut costs — and corners, as seen in so-called “Frankenwines.” Although it didn’t bring about these changes by any measure, the Judgment of Paris tasting was a signifier that the world was at a turning point in how it made and consumed wine. Whether you agree or disagree with the judges’ scores, it was the moment when wine lovers realized they could find great wines from all over the world. And that was the Judgment of Paris.