California Wines Leave Frenchies in the Dust

Today’s the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris , the day in 1976 when California wines were declared the finest vino on the planet – better, even, than some of the most exalted Bordeaux.

It all started with a British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, trying to drum up business for his little wine shop, Caves de la Madeleine, in Paris. Spurrier had visited a few upstart wineries in California and thought what he was tasting was competitive. So he recruited nine of France’s top wine experts as judges and gave them instructions: this is a blind tasting of 20 French and American wines – 10 Cabernet Sauvignons, 10 Chardonnays – and we want you to assign each wine a score of up to 20 points.

The actual scoring was up to the judges; they could rate the wines on aroma, taste, appearance, structure – whatever qualities they cared to measure. Spurrier simply tallied their marks, divided by nine – and the shocking results changed the way we buy and drink wine across the globe.

A little dramatic, you say? Au contraire.

 

Ch.Montelena

[Castle-like Château Montelena, photo by Robert Engberg via Flickr/CreativeCommons]

Several entries were French “first growths” – some of the priciest, most esteemed bottles on the market – including wines by Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton-Rothschild. But the top-rated Chardonnay (called “white Burgundy” in France, where wines are identified not by grape but by region) was a California wine, a 1973 Château Montelena – only the second vintage crafted for the winery by a young Croatian immigrant and former shepherd boy, winemaker Mike Grgich.

French wines didn’t fare any better in the BigSexyReds category. The winning Cabernet was a 1973 Cab by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The French, of course, were humiliated; they didn’t even report it in their newspapers for almost three months! The French wine industry punished Spurrier by banning him from its wine-tasting circuit for a year, and French judge Odette Kahn, editor of La Revue du vin de France, was so angry at the outcome she demanded her ballot be returned to her so she could vote again. (Her hissy fit didn’t work.)

The media hadn’t taken the competition seriously because everyone assumed France would win. In fact, only one reporter showed up at the event – George Taber of TIME magazine. It was his four-paragraph story that made the wine world take notice of California wines for the first time. As he later recounted in his book, Judgment of Paris, Taber held up his glass of Château Montelena Chardonnay, took a sip and said to himself, “Hey. Maybe I’ve got a story here.”

Curiously, Mike Grgich never even knew the contest was happening. But when he received a telegram informing him his wine had won, he writes in his just-released autobiography, A Glass Full of Miracles, “I felt reborn.”

After the French argued that their wines would age better than California’s, the contest was repeated 20 months after the original event. Again, California whites and reds took top honors. A decade later, California reds again won over Bordeaux entries; whites didn’t compete as both sides recognized they would be past their peak. And again in 2006, on the 30th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, another blind tasting was held – and the top five winners were California Cabs.

This year, for the 40th anniversary, no competition was planned; presumably the French would be happy to forget the whole thing ever happened. Grgich, who left Château Montelena a year after the Judgement to launch Grgich Hills Estate, learned in 2010 that a bottle of 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay had been auctioned in London for $11,325. Another bottle, along with a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, is on display in the Smithsonian, along with the little cardboard suitcase Grgich carried when he immigrated from Croatia in 1954.

[As an aside, my apologies for not publishing early enough for friends and followers to enjoy their California Cab and Chardonnay in time to celebrate; WordPress had a bug in their system. But I suspect we can all manage to catch up tomorrow, no problem!]

Wine Lingo of the Day:  First Growths = The “1855 Classification” of chateaux (wine estates) by the French government was based on their reputations. They were listed as First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths. The First Growths (Premiers Crus) were Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, and Château Mouton-Rothschild.

Cheers!

Mary

Chardonnay Gets Its Day!

You either love Chardonnay, or you can’t stand it. If you’re a fan, May 21 (or 23, depending on whose calendar you follow) is National Chardonnay Day, and there’s plenty to celebrate about this iconic white.

Chardonnay

The green-skinned grape comes to us from the Burgundy region of France (if you’re drinking “white Burgundy,” you’re drinking Chardonnay). The Wente family brought cuttings to their Livermore Valley vineyards early in the last century, and their 1936 vintage was the first varietal labeled in the US.

Chardonnay is a neutral grape – meaning, it takes on flavors of the terroir where it’s grown and from other influences, such as oak. That makes it adaptable to just about every winegrowing region in the world, with distinctive tastes and aromas no matter where it’s grown: in Burgundy it’s known for its lively minerality, thanks to the abundance of  Kimmeridgian limestone in the soil. In Austria, where recordings of gun blasts are played in the vineyards to scare away the birds, it’s made into sweet wines. In California and Argentina, Chardonnay is likely to be toasty and oaky, often with tropical fruit flavors coming through. Some Spanish winemakers use it in making Cava, Spain’s classic sparkling wine. And if you like your bubbly, you’ll want to know that Chardonnay is one of three grapes (and the only white) used in making Champagne.

In France alone, vineyard owners grow some 34 clonal varieties, all developed at the University of Burgundy in Dijon. Why? So they can plant the specific “Dijon clone” that will perform best in their vineyards, and will produce exactly the traits they want in their wines. It’s a complicated business, and the outcomes range from unoaked, minerality-packed Chablis to full, toasty Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé. It’s France’s second-most planted grape, just behind Ugni Blanc (often known as Trebbiano), the key grape in making Cognac, and ahead of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

If you want to throw an impromptu Chardonnay Day dinner, have fun with it and buy a variety of bottles from different regions and in different styles (oaked, unoaked). Keep some basic pairing tips in mind: Chardonnay pairs well with roast chicken and other white meats. If one of your bottles is an older, more earthy Chardonnay, pour it with an earthy dish such as mushroom soup or winter squash. A lightly oaked Chardonnay will pair well with grilled trout or Lobster Thermador, but not a delicate fish dish.

And next week, we’ll celebrate Chardonnay’s (and California Cab’s) finest hour, on the anniversary of the Judgement of Paris!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Blanc de blanc = Champagnes made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photo by Megan Cole, courtesy of Flickr.com]

On World Cocktail Day, I’ll Take Mine Neat

Roh-roh–another Friday the 13th is upon us. But this one’s lucky because it’s also World Cocktail Day, when the spirits-lovers the world over celebrate their favorite mixed drinks.

Manhattan

This day marks the anniversary of the first time the word “cocktail” was seen in print, though a rivalry of sorts has developed over who published it first. One school says that historic mention appeared on May 13, 1806, in a publication called The Balance and Columbian Repository. That entry read, “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

But, students of hooch should know, the venerable Oxford Dictionary also claims to have been the first to mention cocktails on that same day, with this definition: “An alcoholic drink consisting of a spirit or several spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice, lemonade, or cream.”

They might both be wrong. BigSexyReds found two earlier references on another blog (Diffordsguide.com), one in London’s Morning Post and Gazetteer (1798) and another in a US agricultural manual, The Farmer’s Cabinet, in 1803.

The origin of the word itself might have evolved from a description of mixed-breed horses who, unlike thoroughbreds, had tails resembling “cock’s tails.” Since a cocktail is another kind of “mix,” the name stuck. And, spirits-geeks, May 13 also is the day Harry’s Bar in Venice, birthplace of the Bellini cocktail, first opened in 1931.

What isn’t disputed: cocktail-concocting has launched thousands of careers. Mixology is a  more creative endeavor all the time, and some experts credit the recent surge in popularity (and quality) of premium spirits. Bartenders have had to up their game, and we all benefit from their creativity.

My favorite cocktail is the Manhattan. I still get a headache when I remember my first: I was a teenager, my dad had just discovered the fun of mixing drinks, and long story short, I slept through Christmas.

I’ve tempered my cocktail habit since then, but I still love the way bourbon, my favorite spirit, glides over my tongue when it’s blended with the other ingredients. There’s no way to ruin a Manhattan, so go ahead and experiment. Here’s a basic recipe:

Ingredients:   2 oz. bourbon or rye, 1 oz. sweet vermouth, 2 dashes bitters, brandied cherry   garnish.

Combine all ingredients, add ice and stir. Strain into a chilled cocktail or coupe glass and garnish with brandied cherries.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Vermouth = created in the Piedmont wine region of northern Italy in the 1700s, vermouth is a red or white fortified wine, infused with about 100 aromatic spices, barks, herbs and flavorings, including ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, rhubarb and chamomile. You can drink vermouth alone or mix it into a cocktail. Red vermouth usually is sweet, while white can be dry or off-dry.

Enjoy your cocktails! And if you want to keep reading about wine and spirits, just click the “Follow” tab in the lower right-hand corner of your screen and future BigSexyReds.com posts will come to you by email.

Thanks!

Mary

[Photo courtesy of Holly, Flickr.com.]

 

 

Weep No More, My Lady – It’s Derby Day!

Break out your most dazzling, wide-brimmed hats and your top-shelf bourbon! At 5pm Saturday, all eyes will be on Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, and millions of TV viewers will drop everything to belt out,”My Old Kentucky Home” in unison.

Kentucky Derby

Hats and high fashion have always been a Derby tradition. Before the first big thoroughbred race in 1875, racetracks were no place for women; they were dirty and raunchy, and Churchill Downs was no exception. But the Kentucky Derby’s founder, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., had a loftier vision: he wanted his race to attract a more affluent, sophisticated crowd. He worked hard to get the upper crust to the track that day, even driving society women door-to-door to tell their friends they were having a picnic at the track and they’d better not miss it!

The Kentucky Derby was an instant hit among the elite – one of the South’s main events of the year and a prime opportunity to show off the latest fashions. In 1901, a reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote, “The mass of green, pink, red, yellow, blue, all the colors of the rainbow, blending into one harmonious whole was as beautiful a sight as His Eminence in the lead.” (The writer was referring not to the Pope, but to the horse who won the 1901 race.)

Even Derby officials recognize fashion as one of the main features of the event, encouraging “every female to express her inner Southern Belle…”

The other Kentucky Derby tradition we honor, of course, is the venerable Mint Julep. The easy-to-make cocktail was around long before it made its debut at Churchill Downs for  75 cents a pop. Various versions were made with brandy or whiskey throughout the 1700s; some speculate the first Juleps were made with rye or even rum.

Mint Julep

An early reference in 1803 describes the drink as a “dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.” It became a Kentucky Derby legend in the late 1930s when a famous Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, ordered a Mint Julep at a pre-race breakfast in Churchill Downs; today the racetrack sells some 80,000 Juleps on Derby weekend. After losing too many of the special silver (or silver-plated) glasses to racing fans who kept them for souvenirs, officials now sell those as well.

You won’t find an easier cocktail: bourbon (or rye), fresh mint, and simple syrup (half sugar, half water, heat until the sugar melts, set aside to cool). That’s it, easy-peasy. Here’s the recipe:

  • Gently muddle a few sprigs of fresh mint in a chilled silver glass or cocktail glass. The key word is gently; the idea is to release the oils from the mint, not massacre it.
  • Add 2 tablespoons of simple syrup.
  • Fill the glass with crushed ice.
  • Add 2 ounces of bourbon or rye.
  • Garnish with more fresh mint and, if you want to fancy it up, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

You can find more complicated recipes, but why would you want to? Like I said earlier, easy-peasy, and enjoy the race!

And since Sunday is Mother’s Day, a special Wine Lingo for my mom, Eva Dakovich Mihaly, who would be 100 years young later this month!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Chablis = Mom’s choice. She spent most of her adult life ordering “whiskey and soda” – and then she and Dad went to Paris and came home wine drinkers. From then on, she drank “Chablis,” which you don’t hear much anymore. The fact is, Chablis is the name of the northernmost wine district in Burgundy – as well as a village inside the Chablis district – where the only grape grown is Chardonnay. Wines produced there are much crisper and more acidic than Chardonnays produced elsewhere; often they’re kept in stainless steel, rather than wood, to preserve their unique edgy character.

Happy Derby Day and Mother’s Day!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Jennifer Yin (Mint Julep) and Eric Molinsky, CALI Lesson (Derby scene), from Flickr.]