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The Judgment of Paris

Food-and-wine critic Anthony Dias Blue has called it “the most talked about wine tasting of the twentieth century.” It was the famed Paris Tasting of 1976, when two then unknown California wines bested the best of French wines in a blind tasting in Paris. The winning red wine was the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon.

Now the full and real story of what happened at that momentous event is being told in a new book entitled “Judgment of Paris—California vs France and the Historic Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine.”

The Paris Tasting was staged by Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine store and wine school in the French capital. Spurrier and his American associate, Patricia Gallagher, shared an enthusiasm about wine, and did things that the more established French wine businesses would never have thought of doing, like holding a comparative tasting of the famed five French First Growth wines.

In 1975 Gallagher told Spurrier about all the events for the upcoming bicentennial celebration of American independence and suggested that they do a tasting of those new California wines. In the fall of 1975 Gallagher made an exploratory visit to the Napa Valley to scout out the wine scene. Among the people she met was the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

In the spring of 1976, Spurrier traveled to California to have a look himself and to select and obtain wines for the event. He chose six California Cabernet Sauvignons, which he planned to face off against similar French red Bordeaux’s and six California Chardonnays, which would be tasted with French White Burgundies.

The event was held on May 24, 1976 at the Intercontinental Hotel just down the street from the Louvre Museum. Everything was prepared to make sure that the competition was fair. The wines were poured into neutral bottles, so that the judges could not pick out the French wines simply by noting the minor variation of California bottles. The names were put on small pieces of paper and a summer intern from the wine school picked them out of a hat to determine the order in which they would be tasted.

For the French White Burgundies, Spurrier selected 1973 Bâtard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, 1973 Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin, 1973 Meursault Charmes Roulot, and 1972 Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive. The California Chardonnays: 1974 Chalone Vineyard, 1973 Chateau Montelena, 1972 Freemark Abbey Winery, 1973 Spring Mountain Vineyard, and 1972 Veedercrest Vineyard. Spurrier thought the Bâtard-Montrachet would walk away with first place among the whites.

For the Bordeaux reds, Spurrier also went for the best. He selected two wines classified as First Growths and two so-called Super Second Growths. They were: 1970 Château Haut-Brion, 1971 Château Léoville-Las-Cases, 1970 Château Montrose and 1970 Château Mouton Rothschild. The California reds were: 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, 1971 Ridge Monte Bello, 1971 Mayacamas, 1972 Clos du Val, 1970 Heitz Martha's Vineyard and 1969 Freemark Abbey. With the two First Growths, Spurrier was confident that a French wine would also come out on top among the reds.

Spurrier was staging the event to garner some publicity for his wine shop and school, but a week before the event no reporters were coming. Everyone knew the French would win, so nothing new to report there. Gallagher, though, remembered that I had taken a wine course she gave and was a Time magazine reporter, she called to ask if I would attend. I agreed as long as I didn’t have anything more important to do that day.

As is traditional in a tasting involving both red and white wines, the whites went first. At one point judge Raymond Oliver, the owner and chef of the Grand Véfour restaurant, one of the temples of French haute cuisine, swirled a white wine in his glass, held it up to the light to examine the pale straw color, smelled it, and then tasted it. After a pause he said, “Ah, back to France!” In fact, Oliver had just tasted the 1972 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay.

After the white wines were tasted, the scorecards were collected and the results announced. The winner was the Chateau Montelena! In second place was France’s Meursault Charmes. But three of the top five wines were from California. Every French judge had selected a California wine as his or her top choice.

As the waiters began pouring the red wines, Spurrier was certain that the judges would not let a California wine win again. This time there was not as much confusion. Raymond Oliver at one point tasted a wine and then said confidently, “That’s a Mouton, without a doubt.” He was right.

This time the voting was much closer, and it looked as if some judges had specifically scored wines that they thought were from California extremely low. The final tally was very close, but the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was first with a total of 127.5 points over second place Château Mouton Rothschild with 126 points. The French judges were shocked into silence and one of them tried to get her scorecard back, presumably to keep the information secret.

Perhaps no one in the room realized that anything historic had just taken place, but the following Monday morning when the Time magazine story hit the newsstands, American wine fans rushed to buy the unknown California wines that had just beaten the French and were selling for a fraction of the price of the French wines—if you could even find them. At the time the S.L.V. was selling for $7.49 at a store in Chicago, while the second-place Château Mouton was $25.00.

In my book Judgment of Paris, I show that the 1976 tasting was not just important for California winemakers; it was also a turning point for world wine. Up to that time, French wines had been considered to be in a league by themselves, while the rest of the world was regarded as second rate. The Paris Tasting, though, made winemakers from Italy to South Africa realize that if the Californians could produce prize-winning wines, then perhaps they could, as well.