Wine Ink: ‘Judgment of Paris’ changes globe’s wine landscape forever | SierraSun.com

Wine Ink: ‘Judgment of Paris’ changes globe’s wine landscape forever

Kelly J. Hayes
Wine Ink

OK, so I know that I have been a bit heavy on the historical side of wine these past couple of months, but the 40th anniversary of what may well be the most important piece of wine writing in American history takes place this week, and I simply cannot let it pass without paying homage.

So open up a Stag's Leap Cabernet or a bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, put on some jazz, preferably Michel Legrand and get ready for a little story from the American Bicentennial year of 1976.

THE TASTING

Say the name Steve Spurrier, and most Americans instantly think of the Ol' Ball Coach and former Heisman trophy winner from University of Florida in 1966.

Ah, but in the world of wine, the name Steven Spurrier conjures the face of the erudite and engaging British wine aficionado who has spent his entire adult life promoting the virtues of fine wine. Especially fine French wine.

In the late 1960s, with a degree from the London School of Economic, he (the wine guy, not the football guy) took his talents and his passions to Paris where he purchased a small neighborhood wine shop called Les Caves de la Madeleine off the Rue Royal.

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There he created a reputation and, dare I say it, a brand by allowing patrons to actually try wines before purchasing them — this in the days long before either the Cruvinet or the Coravin were even pipe dreams.

Anyway, Spurrier also opened a wine school and was constantly looking for ways to promote the bottles he had on offer. He had a rudimentary knowledge at that time of American wine in general and the Napa Valley in particular.

Hearing that the American Bicentennial was to be celebrated in 1976, he thought it might be fun to have a blind tasting in Paris of American wines and French wines, and he invited some elite French wine personalities to judge them.

On May 24, 1976, nine esteemed French wine experts joined Spurrier and an American, Patricia Gallagher, who was Spurrier's California connection, for a side-by-side blind tasting of Bordeaux-style reds and chardonnays. There would be 10 wines in each category, with six hailing from California and four from France.

They included many of the most prestigious labels in French winemaking, along with little known labels from America's left coast. The judges were told to grade each wine on a 20-point scale as they saw fit.

Though it seemed, not just unlikely, but impossible, the nine French judges selected California wines as the top drops of the event. A Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay won the white wine competition, and a Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon beat out the great Grand Cru Bordeaux wines for the honor in the red category.

So earth-shaking was this pronouncement that one of the judges, Odette Kahn, the editor of "La Revue du vin de France," actually demanded her rating card returned to her. "Mon dieu!" was all the French could say about this outcome.

THE STORY

Now, as amazing as the verdict was, after all, the most learned palates in French wine culture had determined that wines from California were in fact tastier than those from the motherland — but nobody would have known about it. Or cared.

That is if one George Taber had not been in the room. While journalists had been invited to attend the tasting, only one, Taber, who was in Paris as a correspondent for Time magazine, accepted the offer.

He was not an expert in wine at the time, but he knew enough to realize that this David versus Goliath win by the American wines deserved some print. In the June 7, 1976, edition of Time he wrote a total of four paragraphs in something called the Modern Living section of the magazine.

There were no photos, but the headline said it all: "Judgment of Paris" it read, a play on the Greek mythology contest between the three most beautiful goddesses of Olympos — Aphrodite, Hera and Athena — for the prize of a golden apple addressed to "the fairest."

The four paragraphs, which made playful fun of the snobbery of the judges, changed the world of wine forever. It showed, in Time magazine no less, that winemakers from around the world could make wines that were equal to, or better than, the French stalwarts.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass, Colo., with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.

Under the influence

One of the wines that was a part of the Judgment of Paris tasting was the 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. It finished fifth amongst the 10 red wines tasted. The pedigree of this wine and this vineyard is impeccable. Sourced entirely from the Monte Bello vineyard, this blend of cabernet and merlot explodes with big bursts of dark fruit, generous tannins and hints of California soil and smoke.

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The price of victory

This year, a number of wineries and restaurants hosted tastings of California and French wines as an homage to the Judgment of Paris. But there are few places that have actual bottles of the two winning wines.

One of those places is the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History. In his story, George Taber noted “the U.S. winners are little known to wine lovers, since they are in short supply even in California and rather expensive ($6 plus).”

In 2010, one of the few remaining bottles of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay sold for $11,325 at auction.