It’s been 40 years since the infamous wine tasting in Paris, a colossal event that changed the wine industry. On the afternoon of May 24, 1976 Steven Spurrier, a British ex-pat, sponsored a tasting of California and French wines with a panel of French judges. Spurrier owned a wine store in Paris and the tasting would generate publicity but he never expected the outcome that occurred.
After Prohibition American consumers bought only two kinds of wine – both were inferior quality made in California. The first was dry table wine sold in large formats that we know as “jug wine”. The second was sweet fortified wine such as Gallo’s Thunderbird, a best-seller in the 1950’s. By the 1960’s California producers such as Almaden, Christian Brothers, Inglenook and others were improving quality but the wines were primarily sold in USA. The only California wine sold in Paris was Paul Masson, in screw-top bottles sold at gourmet shops.
Spurrier had heard that Napa Valley was producing good wines but he knew nothing about them. In preparation for the event, he visited Napa wineries and selected three bottles of each California wine for the tasting. The format of the event would be a blind tasting of Chardonnay (6 from Napa vs 4 from Burgundy, France) and Cabernet Sauvignon (6 from Napa vs 4 from Bordeaux, France). Judges would score each wine using the 20-point system common in France based on color (clarity), nose (aroma), taste and balance. The judges were 9 French men with impressive credentials in the wine trade. Spurrier also invited several publications to cover the event.
The tasting began at 3pm but the event did not generate much interest in the Paris wine community. How could California, the land of mediocre jug wines, be compared to France’s world famous wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux? Only 1 member of the press attended, George Tauber, a young American writer on assignment in Paris with Time magazine.
White wines were tasted first. The judges were nervous and soon became confused when they could not identify the California wines. Based on the scoring system 3 of top 4 wines were California in this order:
- Chateau Montelena Napa 1973
- Meursault Charmes Burgundy 1973
- Chalone Napa 1973
- Spring Mountain Napa 1973
Surprised at the scoring, the judges became more intense with the tasting of the red wines and the results for Cabernet Sauvignon were much closer. The order of top 4 red wines was:
- Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Napa 1973
- Chateau Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux 1973
- Chateau Montrose Bordeaux 1970
- Chateau Haut-Brion Bordeaux 1970
The judges were stunned! They had selected California over France for both a red and white wine. They began to dispute the scores and criticize the scoring system but the damage was done. France’s dominance as the world’s premier wine producer had ended. Word spread very quickly to California and the following article soon appeared in Time magazine. “Nine of France’s top wine experts swirled and sniffed and sipped and spit for over 2 hours…and awarded top prize in both red and white wines to two noble upstarts from California.”
The shocking results of Paris tasting leveled the playing field between Old World and New World wines. It proved that the French recipe for fine wine could be replicated in other parts of the world by using their wine-making techniques and “terroir” viticulture practices.
A summary of the event can be found at this link http://www.napavalley.com/2016/05/02/judgement-of-paris-facts/
Cheers, Bob the WineGuy
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That reporter is one lucky guy. i’m sure the French were pissed that he was there. Great article with interesting history! Keep up the great blogging!
If the French press had attended the event, my guess is that they would not report the results.
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