The Judgment of Paris: 40 Facts for the 40th Anniversary

  • Wine
  • by WC STAFF
  • on MAY 2, 2016
  • 5532
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In 1976, a selection of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from California were put up for comparison against their well-established French counterparts. The expectation, of course, was that the French wines would easily win the competition. The sensation that was made when California’s offerings easily trounced the competition sent shockwaves throughout the wine industry, and changed the industry forever (ruffling quite a few feathers in the process). This year celebrates the 40th anniversary of that infamous Paris tasting. To commemorate this tasting that changed the world of wine, we’ve rounded up 40 interesting facts surrounding the event.

1) Things didn’t go quite as planned.

The Paris Tasting (which would come to be known as the Judgment of Paris) was held with the expectation that French wines were superior to New World (i.e. American) wines. American wines were included to show that interesting wines were being produced, but were not expected to outrank their French counterparts. No one could have expected that this event would revolutionize the world of wine.

2) An Englishman was behind the whole thing.

Steven Spurrier, a British-born wine expert who ran a fine wine shop in Paris, was the mastermind behind the whole tasting. He was a champion of French wine, and decided to hold a blind tasting at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris.

3) Steven Spurrier had to work hard to purchase his wine shop.

After wandering by the original shop, Caves de La Madeleine, Spurrier proclaimed that he would like to buy it. The owner Madame Fougère was hesitant to sell to an Englishman since the shop had been important to her late husband, so they struck a deal. Before she would sell, Spurrier spent six months working there without pay to prove his commitment!

4) The shop offered wine classes.

Spurrier decided to start a wine school for American and British expats living in Paris. Along with Jon Winroth, the Herald Tribune’s wine writer, the two opened the Académie du Vin, an English-language wine school. Business was good, so American freelance writer Patricia Gallagher also started working for the school.

5) America’s bicentennial had a little something to do with it.

Patricia Gallagher told Steven Spurrier about the upcoming celebrations to celebrate the bicentennial of American independence. They thought it would be fun to run a blind tasting that included a few American wines to coincide with the United States’ celebrations. They mostly hoped this would bring attention to his shop, but were also excited to show that interesting things were happening in American winemaking.

6) Spurrier wasn’t very familiar with the California wines of the day.

Although he had tried some of the American wines available in Paris, Spurrier didn’t have access to the best California wines being produced. Patricia Gallagher visited the area and brought back a few samples of Napa Valley wines with her.

7) Spurrier and his wife visited California to acquire the wines for the tasting.

Spurrier visited California wineries in March of 1976 to find the wines to include in the Paris Tasting. He didn’t tell the wineries that he was planning to hold a blind tasting with the wines; he just visited the wineries and made some purchases. He selected six Chardonnays and six Cabernet Sauvignons.

8) They didn’t know how to get the California wines to the tasting in Paris.

After purchasing two bottles of each wine for the blind tasting, Spurrier had acquired 24 bottles of California wine on his trip, too many to take home as luggage. As a favor, the wines were actually brought to Paris as the luggage of a visiting tour group.

9) The judges were the most prominent French wine experts of the day.

Steven Spurrier and Patricia Gallagher graded the wines, side by side with the French wine experts, but the scores of Spurrier and Gallagher were not included in the results.

10) There was no official criteria for grading the wines.

The judges were told to grade their wines out of 20 points, yet no specific framework was provided for how to grade the wines. The judges awarded points based on their own criteria.

11) The evaluation was a blind tasting.

The labels were covered, so the judges didn’t know which wines they were tasting, or whether they were French or American.

12) The tasting included the best French wines of the day.

White wines included a 1973 Meursault Charmes, a 1973 Beaune Clos des Mouches, a 1973 Bâtard-Montrachet, and a 1972 Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles. Red wines included a 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild, a 1970 Château Haut Brion, a 1970 Château Montrose from Saint-Estèphe, and a 1971 Château Léoville-Las-Cases from Saint-Julien.

13) Napa Valley wines took home the prize.

Although it shocked the judges, Napa Valley wines outranked the French wines in both the red and white wine categories.

14) Chateau Montelena won the white wine competition.

Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay won first place in the white wine competition. This was only the second vintage of wine produced by the winery. Visit the winery’s open house to be held on the 40th Anniversary of the tasting, May 24th, 2016.

15) The grapes for the winning Chardonnay were purchased.

As a new winery, Chateau Montelena was in the process of growing new vines that wouldn’t produce harvestable fruit for several more years. They bought the grapes that would make their award-winning Chardonnay from grape growers John Hanna, Lee Paschich, and Henry Dick. Most of these grapes were actually grown in Sonoma County, although the wine was made at Chateau Montelena in Calistoga.

16) The winning Chardonnay originally retailed for a low, low price.

When Chateau Montelena announced the release of their 1973 Chardonnay, winery owner Jim Barrett recommended a $6.50 retail price per bottle.

17) Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars won the red wine competition.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon won first place in the red wine competition. Warren Winiarski was the winemaker.

18) 1,800 bottles of the winning Cabernet Sauvignon were produced.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars produced 1,800 bottles of the winning red wine, which were bottled by Warren Winiarski, along with the help of his wife and their three children.

19) The winning Cabernet Sauvignon was offered at an even lower price than the winning Chardonnay.

When Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars first began selling their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, Winiarski determined that the bottle should be sold for around $6. Restaurants and retailers were sold 12-bottle cases at $48 each.

20) The tasting launched the California wine industry.

After the results were reported, the participating California wineries saw a huge increase in interest.

21) One reporter changed everything.

Although Steven Spurrier had invited many reporters to the event, George M. Taber from Time magazine was the only one in attendance.

22) You can read all about it.

Journalist George Taber would later chronicle the story in his book, “The Judgment of Paris,” in 2005, with the goal of “setting the record straight”.

23) Very little was said in the beginning.

Only four paragraphs were originally published in Time Magazine about this event that ushered in a new era of wine. The French media wrote dismissive remarks about the event.

24) Grgich Hills Estates has roots dating back to the tasting.

Winery founder Miljenko “Mike” Grgich was the winemaker for Chateau Montelena in 1973. He then partnered with Austin Hills to create family-run Grgich Hills in 1977. Read Grgich’s perspective on the events of his life, including his participating in the Paris Tasting, in his autobiography, “A Glass Full of Miracles.”

25) Warren Winiarski was behind the red wine winner.

He was the winemaker of the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon that placed first in the red wine competition.

26) The French Judges didn’t think the California wines would stand the test of time.

After hearing the results, the French judges believed that if the wines were re-tasted in 30 years, the California wines wouldn’t be drinkable. On May 24, 2006, simultaneous tastings were held in Napa and in London. The re-enactment proved that California wines pass the test of time.

27) Ridge Vineyards was entered in the red wine competition, and has only gotten better with time.

Ridge Vineyards’ 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, placed 5th in the red wine competition. In the 2006 30th Anniversary re-tastings held in Napa and London, the wine was ranked number one.

28) Heitz 1970 single-vineyard Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet was entered in the red wine competition.

Heitz’ 1970 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was entered into the tasting. When Joe Heitz produced the first vintage in 1966, he included a vineyard designation that was not yet commonplace. He introduced that concept to Napa Valley wines.

29) Clos Du Val’s debut vintage of red wine was entered in the Paris Tasting.

Clos du Val’s 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the six California Cabernet Sauvignon selected for inclusion in the original tasting. It was only the winery’s first vintage of wine! Ten years later, it placed first in the red wine tasting during the 10th anniversary rematch.

30) Mayacamas Vineyards ranked second among the red wines in the Paris Tasting.

The Mayacamas Vineyards 1971 Cabernet Sauvignon was included in the Paris tasting, although owner Robert Travers did not think think the wine was ready to drink yet, as it had not even been officially released at the time. Surprisingly, it placed second in the competition.

31) Freemark Abbey was the only California winery with two wines that were included in the Paris Tasting.

Freemark Abbey had wines entered in both categories—the 1969 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon in the red wine tasting, and the 1972 Chardonnay in the white wine tasting.

32) Chalone Vineyard impressed the judges in the white wine competition, as well as other notable tasters.

Chalone Vineyard’s 1974 Chardonnay, from the Chalone AVA in Monterey County, ranked third in the Paris Tasting. 20 months later, it placed first in the white wine competition held at the San Francisco Wine Tasting. When Chef Julia Child visited Chalone Vineyard, she reportedly said they had created the first non-French wines that she liked!

33) Spring Mountain Vineyard’s Chardonnay ranked high in the white wine competition.

Spring Mountain Vineyard’s 1973 Chardonnay placed fourth among the American and French white wines at the competition.

34) Veedercrest Vineyards first commercial vintage of Chardonnay was included in the white wine tasting.

Although their 1972 Chardonnay was the first official vintage from Veedercrest Vineyards, winemaker Al Baxter was already a passionate home winemaker. A man of many interests, he got into commercial winemaking after studying and teaching philosophy at UC Berkeley.

35) David Bruce Winery was entered into the white wine tasting, but would come to be known for their red wines.

David Bruce Winery’s namesake winemaker actually worked as both a dermatologist and winemaker. His 1973 Chardonnay was entered into the Chardonnay tasting, but today the winery is well known for its incredible Pinot Noir.

36) The winning bottles are on display.

Winning the Paris tasting resulted in the placement of the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay at the Smithsonian Museum.

37) This wasn’t just a one-time deal.

Numerous commemorative tastings have taken place since the original competition in 1976. A San Francisco Wine Tasting was held just 20 months after the original event, in 1978. Official tastings have also taken place for the 10th and 30th anniversaries.

38) The event inspired Hollywood.

The movie “Bottle Shock” was inspired by the events of the Judgment of Paris, although much of the story was fictionalized.

39) A new movie is being made about the events.

A new film inspired by George Taber’s “Judgment of Paris” book is currently being produced.

40) The Napa Valley wine industry has exploded over the past 40 years.

Before the Paris tasting, there were approximately 67 wineries in the Napa Valley. Today there are over 400. The Judgment of Paris forever changed the California wine trade.