Known as the greatest underdog story in the wine industry, the Judgement of Paris in 1976 cemented California’s place as an important wine producer, despite being written off as inferior due to its “New World” status. Now, 45 years later, Californian wines are as highly regarded as their European counterparts.
The Build Up
The event as proposed by Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned Cave de la Madeleine Paris wine shop. As the wines of California were gaining more popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, Spurrier and his assistant, Patricia Gasteaud-Gallagher organized a tasting featuring both Californian wines and their French equivalents. Gasteaud-Gallagher had hosted tastings of American wines in Paris before, though the French always seemed to be less than enthused with the New World bottles. Nevertheless, the reputation of Northern Californian estates convinced her to give it another go. Leading up to the event, Gasteaud-Gallagher travelled to the USA to sample wines that could hold their own in this epic tasting.
Spurrier was impressed with the selection brought over from California and decided to host the Old vs New World tasting. Together, they chose ten white wines, Burgundy, and California Chardonnays, and ten red wines, featuring Left Bank Bordeaux blends and Californian Cabernet Sauvignons. Among these wines were bottles of Grand Cru and First Growths, demonstrating the absolute finest in French wines. Each bottle of French wine was selected from Cave de la Madeleine Paris.
Set up at the Intercontinental Hotel, which was mere steps away from Spurrier’s shop, the tasting was described as an educational experiment rather than official competition. As such, “judges” were instructed to rate each of the wines out of 20, based on whatever criteria they deemed relevant. What’s more, the tasting was changed at the last minute to be a blind tasting, an uncommon occurrence in the 1970s.
On the panel were some of the most respected names in French gastronomy, from sommeliers to wine magazine editors. In the audience was one sole journalist, American George Taber, as other members of the press declined to show up due to the inevitability of France’s triumph. Taber had access to the list of wines during the tasting and was well aware of which direction the tasting was going.
After tallying the scores of each wine, California was awarded first place in both categories. The 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars bested iconic French estates such as Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion. Outraged, many of the judges requested their score cards back in order to hide the results from the public. No one expected the tasting to make international news, but one Taber published his piece “Judgement of Paris” in Time magazine, public opinion of French and American wine was irrevocably changed.
The Judgement of Paris is credited with putting not only American wine, but all New World producers on the map. The long held notion of French wines being superior was finally overturned, and American winemakers were recognized with the respect they deserved. The tasting has been replicated over the years on major anniversaries, with nearly identical results each time.
Many wonder if the incredible wines from America, Australia, South Africa, Chile, and more would exist to the same extent if it weren’t for Spurriers little publicity stunt. Sadly, Spurrier passed away in March of this year, but the impact he made on the wine industry will live on forever.
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