On 24 May 1976, the world of fine wine changed forever. In a tasting now known as The Judgement of Paris, Bordeaux’s greatest houses squared up against relative newcomer Napa Valley. Not unlike the Greek myth, the results would alter perceptions, elevate underdogs to greatness, and spark an enduring competition. Let’s explore this dramatic backdrop and the enduring legacy it carries through the world of wine.
The Stage: 1970s Paris
The Parisian reputation as the global epicenter of art, culture, and gastronomy mingled with complex geopolitical stress and dwindling economic growth in the 1970s. French pride lived in Parisian sophistication and the city’s wine culture boasted ready access to the finest bottles from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the rest of France.
By comparison, California’s first steps onto the global stage met dismissal and disbelief. Pioneering winemakers like Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski elevated Napa Valley wines within the US. Yet for much of the 1970s, the United States’ reputation lent itself to political and social upheaval.
Two countries churning with discontent and linked by history entered into a meeting of mythical import. And the results shocked the world.
The Visionaries: Gallagher and Spurrier
Enter Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, and Patricia Gallagher, an American writer. Spurrier owned the Cave de la Madeleine wine shop and the neighboring Académie du Vin. Gallagher directed the Académie du Vin and would later hold the Chevalier du Mérite Agricole and become director of Le Cordon Bleu wine department.
Gallagher hosted American wine tastings each July 4th and saw an opportunity to explore the rumors of Napa Valley’s greatness as the US bicentennial approached. The duo organized The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 as part educational event, part experiment, and part marketing effort.
The event gathered some of France’s finest wines with the relative newcomers from California. Two blind-tasting panels were assembled, one to assess Chardonnay and the other to assess Bordeaux Rouge and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Selection: French and Californian Wines
Gallagher and Spurrier each took a reconnaissance pass through Napa Valley to select the wines for their tasting. The wines that made it to the table were, for Gallagher, exemplary models that would frame Napa Valley in a way that made her American roots proud. Spurrier sought out under-the-radar producers that are now Blue Chip brands.
|California Cabernet Sauvignon||Vintage||Bordeaux||Vintage|
|Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars||1973||Château Mouton-Rothschild||1970|
|Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello||1971||Château Montrose||1970|
|Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard||1970||Château Haut-Brion||1970|
|Clos Du Val Winery||1972||Château Leoville Las Cases||1971|
|Freemark Abbey Winery||1969|
|Chateau Montelena||1973||Meursault Charmes Roulot||1973|
|Chalone Vineyard||1974||Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin||1973|
|Spring Mountain Vineyard||1973||Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon||1973|
|Freemark Abbey Winery||1972||Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Dom Leflaive||1972|
|David Bruce Winery||1973|
Eleven highly esteemed wine professionals made their way to the tasting and assembled a tasting panel. Overall, with the exception of Gallagher and Spurrier, the panel was entirely French. Although journalist George Taber would later report the event as a competition, it was not intended or planned as one. Indeed, Gallagher fumed that what she envisioned as an amicable tasting in celebration of her home country’s annual Independence Day devolved into a competition. Nonetheless, when news of the judges tasting notes and scores got out, there was a celebration to be had, and Gallagher and Spurrier played a mighty role in bringing American wine to the international stage.
The Panelist in alphabetical order:
Pierre Brejoux (French) of the Appellation d’Origine Controlee Board
Claude Dubois-Millot (French) (Substitute to Christian Millau)
Michel Dovaz (French) of the Wine Institute of France
Patricia Gallagher (American) of l’Academie du Vin.
Odette Kahn (French) Editor of La Revue du vin de France
Raymond Oliver (French) of the restaurant Le Grand Véfour
Steven Spurrier (British) Founder of L’Academie du Vin
Pierre Tari (French) of Chateau Giscours
Christian Vannequé (French) the sommelier of Tour D’Argent
Aubert de Villaine (French) of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
Jean-Claude Vrinat (French) of the Restaurant Taillevent
On May 24, 1976, at the InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel, stealthy hands secreted bottles into brown paper bags. The panel of tasters gathered in a beautifully adorned room. Each taster graded the selections of wines on a 20-point scale and, in the absence of formal grading criteria, each taster assessed the wine according to their personal criteria. Because of their role as organizers, the grades of Spurrier and Gallagher didn’t make the final cut. Afterward, the wines received rankings in accordance with the scores assigned by the panelists. Each wine received an individual score based on its average score across the panel (for those in the know – that’s an arithmetic mean).
The Surprise: Californian Triumph
As the blind tasting unfolded, a hushed excitement filled the room. The announcement came that the two favorite wines were Californian. Followed immediately by dread. Gallagher and Spurrier realized immediately that their educational tasting morphed into a contest. Odette Kahn realized first what the presence of journalist George Taber meant: this would swarm the press as a competition in which unknown American wines had beaten out France’s most prestigious houses. And the inadvertent “judges” lent credibility to the pronouncement.
In the red wine category, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars‘ 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon stunned the panel, winning the top position over prestigious Bordeaux estates like Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Montrose.
In the white wine category, Chateau Montelena‘s 1973 Chardonnay claimed victory, outclassing Domaine Leflaive‘s renowned Burgundy. The Californian wines, once considered upstarts, had triumphed over the French titans in their own backyard.
One can hardly blame the American winemakers for their celebration. The results were stunning and would rearrange the power dynamic of the global wine stage.
The Long Finish: Global Recognition
The Judgement of Paris sent shockwaves throughout the wine world. The results were initially met with skepticism and even accusations of bias. However, as the tasting’s authenticity was verified, it became clear that this event had monumental implications for the wine industry.
California wines were suddenly in the international spotlight. The Judgement of Paris exposed the world to the potential of the New World’s winemaking capabilities and shattered the long-standing belief in French wine supremacy. The competition ignited interest in California’s wine regions, leading to increased investments, vineyard expansions, and a newfound respect for American winemakers.
The Legacy of the Judgement of Paris
The Judgement of Paris left an indelible mark on the wine industry, and its legacy endures to this day. Here are some of the lasting effects of this historic event:
- Increased Global Interest: The Judgement of Paris sparked a global fascination with wine, leading to greater international wine consumption and trade. It inspired winemakers from various regions to showcase their talents and terroirs.
- Quality and Innovation: The competition pushed winemakers to continuously strive for excellence, fostering a culture of quality and innovation in both Old World and New World wineries.
- Diversity in Wine Selection: Wine enthusiasts now have access to a wider range of wines from diverse regions, offering a richer and more exciting wine-drinking experience.
- Promotion of Blind Tastings: Blind tastings, like the one at the Judgement of Paris, have become more common, emphasizing the importance of objective evaluation based solely on taste.
- Napa Valley’s Rise to Prominence: Napa Valley, in particular, benefited immensely from the Judgement of Paris. It became synonymous with high-quality wine production and established itself as one of the world’s premier wine regions.
In the years following the Judgement of Paris, wine enthusiasts and collectors began to explore wines beyond the traditional French strongholds. As a result, New World wine regions, from Napa Valley to Australia’s Barossa Valley, started gaining recognition for their unique terroirs and innovative winemaking techniques.
Wineries around the world sought to emulate the success of the Californian wineries that had excelled in Paris. Certainly, this event marked the beginning of a shift in the global wine landscape, where Old World and New World wines could coexist and compete on equal footing.