Note: The May edition of Winery U, our wine education classes at Dry Comal Creek Vineyards, will be a recreation of the Judgment of Paris, the tasting competition that changed the world of wine.
Anyone who registers for the May Winery U will be included on the tasting panel, which will match California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons against French wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Here is the story of what happened that day in May, 1976:
Like many history-making events, the Judgment of Paris wasn’t intended to change anything.
Basically, it was a publicity stunt that, depending on your point of view, went very, very well or very, very badly.
In early 1975, a Paris-based British wine educator and merchant named Stephen Spurrier decided he wanted to organize a tasting competition between California and French wines, specifically Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons. Spurrier was well-known in French wine circles; his shop, Les Caves de la Madeleine, carried French wines, and his Académie du Vin next door specialized in wine education – French wine education – for English speakers.
The cover of George Taber’s book. ‘Judgment of Paris.’
Spurrier and his business partner, Patricia Gallagher, worked diligently to set up the California-vs.-France event. They both had been introduced to California’s growing wine industry, but they both had to travel to the state to learn the region and seek out the best it had to offer.
Events were not new to them, though. They staged tastings on a regular basis, and both the shop and the school had a reputation among the expatriates in Paris as the place to learn French wines. (In fact, it also had a reputation among French wine lovers; there was no French-speaking equivalent to the school in Paris at the time.)
They decided to stage the competition in 1976, during the U.S. Bicentennial, as a way to generate additional press. After deciding which California wines to feature, they made arrangements with the producers to have them shipped to Paris; Spurrier and Gallagher then chose the French counterparts.
The judges would all be French, wine experts from government agencies and the media and the best restaurants in Paris. The tasting would be “blind,” in which the judges would not know which wine was which, at least from looking at the label. Each flight would have six California wines and four from France. It would be the afternoon of May 24, at the Hotel InterContiental, and the promoters sent out news releases to the media well in advance.
Few journalists even bothered to respond, suspecting – as did Spurrier and Gallagher – that the so-called contest between California and France would be no contest at all. The little-known California wines would stand no chance against those made in the world’s premier regions, Burgundy and Bordeaux. By the day of the event, just one member of the media had confirmed his plans, and then only tentatively.
The judges were given a simple system, assigning each wine a score of between 1 and 20. Spurrier would collect the ballots, total the scores and then average them to choose a winner.
The tasting began at 3 p.m., and the judges went through the motions of examining color and clarity, swirling and sniffing, tasting and spitting. George Taber, the chief correspondent for Time magazine in Paris, the journalist who had told Gallagher he might show up – and, as it turned out, the only journalist who did – began to notice something almost immediately. Taber, whose book “Judgment of Paris” is the definitive recounting of that day, knew which wines were which, but he saw the judges were having a hard time telling the difference between them. More than one of them dismissed a Burgundy as a California, and they also mistook a California Chardonnay for one of their own.
A poster for ‘Bottle Shock,’ the movie based on the Judgment of Paris.
When the tasting was done, Spurrier collected the ballots. His original plan had been to announce the results at the end of the event, but he only had rented the room for three hours, so he changed course. He totaled numbers – then, supposedly, re-totaled them – before making the announcement that would change the world wine market forever.
The winner was from Chateau Montelena, a small producer in Napa Valley. A Burgundy, the Meursault Charmes, was second, but California wines were third, fourth and sixth. Every judge had rated a California as their top pick, and the Montelena was the No. 1 choice of six of the 10.
As might be expected, the French judges were aghast.
The tasting then moved to the Cabernets. As Taber recalled in his book, there was less chatter among the judges for the second tasting of the day. He also noted that the judges were more accurate in their observations about the wines, with many recognizing familiar ones like the famous Chateau Mouton Rothschild. They also were much tougher in their marks; many more judges scored wines in single digits. Whether they were doing it to make sure a French wine won is a matter for conjecture, but it didn’t matter. When Spurrier collected and tabulated the ballots, the winner by a close margin was the Stag’s Leap Cellars 1973 Cabernet, another California product.
More consternation followed.
Many of the judges were candid in their comments afterward, noting that they had been surprised by the quality of the wines from the United States, wines they had never tasted before May 24, 1976. Others were, in Taber’s words, “snippy” and dismissive.
But the Judgment of Paris could not be dismissed, not with a correspondent for Time magazine there. Taber’s report appeared in the June 7 edition, and it began to spread as quickly as a story could in the days before the Internet. Frank Prial, the New York Times wine writer and perhaps the country’s most-influential wine journalist, devoted two of his weekly columns to the event. Stories began to appear in newspapers across the country, the buzz grew, and demand for California wines skyrocketed.
Robert Mondavi, the most-influential voice of the California wine revival, noted the significance of the Judgment of Paris in “Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business,” his autobiography:
“The Paris tasting was an enormous event in the history of California wine making. It put us squarely on the world map of great wine-producing regions. I saw the impact everywhere I went. Suddenly people had a new respect for what we were doing. They saw we could make wines as good as the best in France.”
The movie “Bottle Shock” is a fictionalized version of the Judgment of Paris, but it carried the core truth of the event. In a final scene, Spurrier and an American friend are at Les Caves de Madeleine, having a glass after the fateful tasting, and they observe that, as Robert Mondavi did, that the world of wine would never be the same. Winemakers in South America and Australia and China and who-knows-where-else would begin to believe they could make great wines, too.
Which of course, is exactly what happened.
Click here to register for Winery U for May, “The (Re) Jugdment of Paris.”
Here is the official trailer for “Bottle Shock:”