The 1976 Judgment of Paris: Forty Years On
It was the tasting that shattered the illusion that the French were the only ones capable of making fine wines– it was also the tasting that would revolutionise the world of wine.
A Victory for California
Forty years ago this week, the Judgment of Paris transpired. On 24 May 1976, Steven Spurrier organised a wine tasting event wherein French judges held two blind tasting comparisons: one for top-quality red wines (Bordeaux wines from France and Cabernet Sauvignon from California) and and Chardonnays.
To the surprise of everyone, Californian wines bested the French vintages in both categories.
It was a blow to French winemakers as France was generally regarded as the foremost producer of the best wines of the world. Spurrier himself only sold French wine, and he believed California wines had no chance of winning.
For the Californians vintners, it was a comeback story following the disaster that was the Prohibition.
The story became the inspiration of many books, as well as a movie.
The Tasting, According to George Taber
Before the actual tasting, the results were already considered a foregone conclusion.
“Obviously, the French wines were going to win,” said George Taber, the then-TIME magazine correspondent in Paris and the only journalist who bothered to show up.
He added that everyone thought “it’s going to be a non-story.” Taber did show up, but it was more of a favour to the organisers. Little did he know he was attending the event that would get him the biggest story of his career.
“It turned out to be the most important event, because it broke the myth that only in France could you make great wine. It opened the door for this phenomenon today of the globalization of wine,” Taber told NPR.
One thing that gave Taber a different approach to the event, aside from being the only journalist, was the fact that he had a lot of access.
He had the list of the order of the wines to be served; the judges didn’t. He watched and observed as the judges sipped, swirled, and spat.
At one point, Taber recounted a scene where Raymond Oliver, one of the 11 judges for the tasting– sampled a white wine.”And then he smelled it, then he tasted it and he held it up again, [and] he said, “Ah, back to France!”, Taber recalled.
Except it wasn’t a French white: it was actually a Chardonnay from Napa Valley. The judge didn’t know that, “but I knew,” Taber said. Realising that California has a real shot at winning, he thought to himself, “Hey, maybe I got a story here.”
The results were a shock to everyone, to say the least. One judge, Odette Khan– the editor of the influential Revue du vin de France– even demanded her scorecard back, but was unsuccessful. Taber said “she wanted to make sure that the world didn’t know what her scores were.”
Decades later, he wrote The Judgment of Paris, one of the most detailed and regarded books about that fateful wine tasting event.
When the scorecards were tallied, the top honours went to a California white and red: 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. A bottle of these winning wines are housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Wine writer David White of Terroirist.com said that the Judgment was a major turning point not only for the Californian wine industry, but for the whole country as well.
White explains that while winemaker Robert Mondavi had a major role in powering California’s wine industry, the Paris tasting was equally influential. The late Jim Barrett, co-owner of Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, even told Taber back in 1976 that their win was “not bad for kids from the sticks.”
The win by the underdogs “gave winemakers everywhere a reason to believe that they too could take on the greatest wines in the world,” continued White.
Following the monumental decision, vineyard upon vineyard began popping across the US in the years that followed. As of April 2016, there are 8,826 wineries across the US, according to WinesAndVines.com.
The True Winners
Forty years later, the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 is seeing the fruits of its labour. Ever since the Judgment, the world’s vintners started sharing and comparing techniques, insights, and information like never before.
Warren Winiarski, the Polish-American founder of Stag’s Leap–the maker of the winning Cabernet Sauvignon– said that as a result of the Judgment, “the wines of the world are better, the wines of France are better.” Winiarski made the statement at a recent Smithsonian event honouring the long-ago wine tasting.
Forty years later, one thing is sure: the real winners of that fateful tasting are the world’s wine lovers.