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40th Anniversary of the Tasting That Changed the Wine World

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May 20, 2016 – Forty years ago a wine tasting was held in Paris that reverberated throughout the wine world and is still being talked about today.  It became the subject of a book and a movie.  It became known as “The Judgment of Paris”.

Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant whose store Caves de la Madeleine was located in the center of Paris, specialized in fine French wine.  He had recently visited California’s Napa Valley and was impressed with the wines of small producers that he tasted while there.  He decided to hold a tasting pitting the upscale, boutique wines from California against some of France’s most celebrated houses from Bordeaux and Burgundy.  He was also taking advantage of the awareness of the year, 1976 marking the bicentennial of the American Revolution and hoping to create a buzz for his wine shop.

Spurrier gathered a group of distinguished French wine experts and the panel was joined by him and American Patricia Gallagher, the manager of his store. He selected 10 white wines, six Chardonnays from California and four whites from Burgundy.  Of the 10 reds, six were California Cabernet Sauvignons and four came from Bordeaux.  The tasting was blind and when the results were revealed, the French judges were shocked and appalled to find they had selected the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon as the best wines.  One judge demanded her ballot back!  The French were not pleased and there was a great deal of hand wringing and, of course, denial that this could possibly have happened.

The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was made by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich who was the winemaker at the time, and who went on to found Grgich Hills Estate. Warren Winniarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars made the winning Cabernet Sauvignon.  Neither man had any idea their wines were being tasted in Paris!

Luckily there was another person at the tasting.  George Taber, Time Magazine’s correspondent in Paris, had been invited to cover the event.  His short story in Time has been called “the most significant news story ever written about wine”.  It made international news.  His book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine” was published in 2005.   A movie about the tasting, “Bottle Shock” was released in 2008.

“The Judgment of Paris” changed perceptions in the wine world forever.  At the time of the tasting, French wines were indisputably regarded as the best and the greatest in the world.  It was a wake up call to the French but an even bigger wake up call to California winemakers who now had the confidence to forge ahead with their own styles and techniques.  Emulating the French was no longer required.

A bottle of each of the winning wines from Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars are in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Collection and are a part of the museum’s online exhibit “101 Objects That Made America.”

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