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Ep 376: The 1976 Judgment of Paris -- the Tasting That Made California Wine Famous

Wine for Normal People

Release Date: 05/24/2021

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First, thanks to listener and Patron Rafael C. for the podcast topic this week!

It is the 45th Anniversary of the Judgment of Paris: a tasting of California and French wines, organized but the late Steve Spurrier, that opened the door for wines from the US and all over the New World to be recognized for their excellence. We should raise a glass to him, his partner Patricia Gallagher, and to journalist and author George Taber, all of whom made this event so very significant. 

Here's a quick recap, all of which we cover in the podcast...

In 1976, an English wine shop owner, Steven Spurrier, and the director of his adjacent wine school, Patricia Gallagher, wanted to introduce members of the French culinary elite to the wines of California. The goal was to show them the new developments happening across the world in wine (and to get publicity for Cave de la Madeleine and the Academie du Vin -- genius marketing!).

 

Photo: Berry Bros & Rudd Wine Blog

In preparation, Spurrier and Gallagher researched, tasted, and carefully selected 6 boutique California Chardonnays and 6 boutique Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. They brought these wines to France and on May 24, 1976 conducted a three-hour tasting that (unbeknownst to them) would change the wine world forever.

 

Nine French judges sat at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris and sipped 6 California Chardonnays with a group of four high end white Burgundies (100% Chardonnay). They followed that up with 6 California Cabernet Sauvignons and four of the best Bordeaux from the Left Bank. The results were as follows:

 

Chardonnays

  1. 1973 Chateau Montelena, Napa Valley (family owned)
  2. 1973 Roulot Meursault Charmes, Premier Cru, Bourgogne
  3. 1974 Chalone Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains (owned by Diageo)
  4. 1973 Spring Mountain Vineyard, Napa Valley (owned by an investment company)
  5. 1973 Joseph Drouhin Beaune “Clos des Mouches,” Premier Cru Bourgogne
  6. 1972 Freemark Abbey, Napa Valley (owned by Jackson Family Wines/Kendall-Jackson)
  7. 1973 Ramonet-Prudhon, Bâtard-Montrachet, Grand Cru, Bourgogne
  8. 1972 Domaine Leflaive, Puligny- Montrachet, “Les Pucelles”, Premier Cru, Bourgogne
  9. 1972 Veedercrest Vineyards, Napa Valley (shut down for 20 years, resurrected in 2005 under a sole proprietor)
  10. 1972 David Bruce Winery, Santa Cruz Mountains (family owned)

National Museum of American History -- Smithsonian Photo

Photo: National Museum of American History -- Smithsonian 

The Cabernets/Bordeaux

  1. 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Napa Valley (owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle/Antinori)
  2. 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux
  3. 1970 Château Haut-Brion, Graves, Bordeaux
  4. 1970 Château Montrose, St-Éstephe, Bordeaux
  5. 1971 Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains (owned since 1987 by a Japanese pharmaceutical company)
  6. 1971 Château-Leoville-Las-Cases, St. Julien, Bordeaux
  7. 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards, Napa Valley (family owned)
  8. 1972 Clos du Val, Napa Valley (family owned)
  9. 1970 Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley (investor owned)
  10. 1969 Freemark Abbey, Napa Valley (owned by Jackson Family Wines/Kendall-Jackson)

 

Shocking and unexpected though they were, the results helped land California a seat at the table in the world of serious wine and paved the way for other regions to show that they were also capable of making excellent wines.

Photo: Bella Spurrier

The contest was not without objection. According to George Taber’s book (FYI -this is an affiliate link and I may earn a small commission from your purchase) the major ones were:

  1. The 20-point system was too limiting (but 20 points was standard at the time, I think any scale would have been criticized)

  2. For each category there were only four French wines to six California wines, so the odds were statistically in California’s favor (this is a very valid argument but the purpose of the tasting was for fun and learning, so we can’t really fault Spurrier for not knowing!)

  3. Spurrier didn’t choose the best French vintages (Spurrier picked French wines he thought would win, this was the best available)

  4. The French wines were too young (the tasting has been replicated and the California wines have aged better than the French wines!)

  5. Blind tastings suck – (this is very true but there was no "gotcha" here. It was just done to remove judgment, not to make people guess what wine was what Chateau!)

 

My additional objections:

  1. It is quite unfair to judge French wine without food. A small roll for palate cleansing isn’t enough. With a meal, the French wines would have been different. Food must be at the table for a fair judgement.

  2. The order of the wines in a tasting matters. Of course a lighter style wine tried after a heavier one will seem washed out. I don’t know what the case was here, but the “out of the hat” system was probably not the best order for the wines.

  3. We do need to realize that 1976 was a very difficult time for France. It was still rebuilding after the trauma of two World Wars in very quick succession and it took years to garner investment and get the wineries functioning and modernized. This was likely in the period of transition and that means the wines, made by traditional methods may have tasted less “clean” in comparison to the wines of California, which benefitted from cutting edge technology and scientific know-how, which was part of the culture of the reborn wine culture there.

 

That said, we all must raise a glass to Steve Spurrier, Patricia Gallagher, and George Taber for holding/covering this event, which improved and globalized wine for the modern times!

Book cover from Amazon.com

I highly recommend George Taber’s book "Judgment of Paris"  It’s a great read!

 

PS-- As we discussed in the show, check out my friend Tanisha
Townsend's podcast, "Wine School Dropout" and her site Girl Meets Glass!

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