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

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4 comments on “California Wines Leave Frenchies in the Dust

  1. Warren says:

    Fun and interesting

  2. Nice post! On Father’s Day I met the legend that made the Chardonnay that beat the French. Read about it here: http://www.topochinesvino.com

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