In the Beginning

The 1976 Judgment of Paris put California, and Chateau Montelena Winery, on the world wine map.

What Happened?

20 Year Anniversary Media Coverage

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August 1996 Volume 21 No 12

California versus France, 20 years on

This last May, the 24th to be exact, marked the 20th anniversary of what Anthony Dias Blue of Bon Appétit describes as, 'the most talked about wine tasting of this century'. I should know, for I was responsible for it.

The background is that 20 years ago I owned a small wine shop in the centre of Paris called Les Caves de la Madeleine, and had opened a wine school next door called L'Académie du Vin.

L'Académie du Vin became a 'must' for any visiting wine journalist or producer and, by the mid 1970s, we had been shown some exceptional wines from California, perhaps well-known in London, but not in Paris, where our neighbour Fauchon sold American screw-cap wine. My partner Patricia Gallagher and I decided that it would be interesting to show these wines to journalists and other experts, using the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 as an excuse.

I made the final selection of California wines on a visit there in early 1976, choosing six Chardonnays and six Cabernets. The plan was to mix then up with four white Burgundies and four red Bordeaux of impeccable origins, and have them all tasted blind by an equally impeccable panel. The hoped-for outcome was that if the wines from California showed honourable, the aim of drawing attention to them, as well as to l'Académie du Vin, would have been achieved. The wines were duly tasted one afternoon at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris, the nine judges being asked to mark them out of 20. The result, adding their marks and dividing this by nine, (which I was told later was statistically meaningless), was as follows:

White wines

Chateau Montelena 1973, Meursault-Charmes 1973 Roulot, Chalone Vineyard 1974, Spring Mountain Vineyards 1973, Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973 Drouhin, Freemark Abbey 1972, Bâtard-Montrachet 1973 Ramonet-Prudhon, Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles 1972 Leflaive under the Sichel label, Veedercrest Vineyards 1972 and David Bruce Vineyards 1973.

Red wines

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970, Chateau Montrose 1970, Chateau Haut-Brion 1970, Ridge Montebello Vineyard 1971, Chateau Léoville-Las Cases 1971, Heitz Martha's Vineyard 1972, Clos du Val 1972, Mayacamas Vineyards 1971 and Freemark Abbey 1968.

Time magazine, awarding this event a full column in its international edition, dubbed it 'The Judgment of Paris.' It certainly drew attention to the wines of California and caused me no little trouble in the country where I then lived and did business. In 1986, in New York, I put together a tasting of only the Cabernets from the original vintages, judged by a similarly impressive American panel. This time Clos du Val and Ridge narrowly came out ahead of Montrose, Léoville and Mouton. The French question the validity of both these tastings, and probably today the clarets would take the first four places. The results of a blind tasting cannot be predicted and will not even be reproduced the next day by the same panel tasting the same wines. Whatever the complaints about comparing 'apples to oranges' the wines were from the same grape varieties, and from vintages quite close in age. If anything was unfair at the Paris tasting, it was that the judges, with the exception of Aubert de Villaine, had no experience of wines from California, probably expecting something warm and weighty, as if from the Midi. If they were trying to second-guess, they would not have expected a wine with elegance to be other than French.

All of this came to the fore again at a 'Red, white and American' conference at the Smithsonian Institute of American History in Washington DC, which inaugurated an exhibit of assorted wine artifacts, including a bottle each of the Stag's Leap 1973 Cabernet and Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay, both of which now form part of the Smithsonian's permanent collection. The title of the exhibit was: 'Doubtless as Good: Jefferson's Dream for American Wine Fulfilled'. On the first evening, I was asked to chair a tasting of the first five ranked red wines from the 1976 tasting, but from vintages in the early 1990s. The wines were not served blind and there was no scoring. In fact, this small tasting was much more a celebration of quality than a comparison. Warren Winiarski then served his 1973, made from three-year-old Cabernet vines, matured in 100% French oak, which was a delight to drink.

Although Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena were catapulted to fame as a result of the 1976 tasting, my feeling is that the event was just as significant for premium California wines as a category. Twenty years ago, California was investing more in research and equipment than any other wine region. The recognition of the quality of some of these wines by the French panel was not only a recompense for this, but a spur to further effort.

What none of the original critics of the tasting could foresee was the effect on France. After the first shock had worn off, the Napa Valley quickly became a Mecca for French vignerons who looked further than their local negociant, to see what was going on. This interfacing between the Old and New World, was the single most important result of comparing 'apples with oranges' that day in 1976. Twenty years on, there is no reason to hold such a tasting, except for pleasure.

Steven Spurrier is a wine consultant and writer.

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May 29th, 1996
By Frank J. Prial
New York Times

The Day When French Wines Met Their Waterloo

Twenty years ago last week, an Englishman staged a competitive tasting of French and American wines in Paris, and the Americans won.

The tasters were prominent figures in the world of French food and wine. The French wines were famous Bordeaux and Burgundies; the American wines were virtually unknown outside of California.

The results shocked the French and, overnight, changed the way the world perceived American wines. The best white wine was a 1973 Napa Valley Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena; the best red, a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag 's Leap Wine Cellars.

The second-ranked white was a 1973 Meursault-Charmes from the Domaine Roulot. For the second-best red the tasters chose the 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.

The tasting, presented by Steven Spurrier, who owned a wine shop and a wine school in Paris, pitted six California Chardonnays against four white Burgundies, and six California Cabernet Sauvignons against four reds from famous Bordeaux chateaus.

The wines were tasted blind; that is, their labels were covered.

Unknown to the tasters, a Time magazine correspondent who covered the tasting spoke French. He caught one judge dismissing a Batard-Montrachet from Burgundy with "definitely California - it has no nose." He caught another saying, "Ah, back to France!" as he sampled a California Chardonnay.

As is customary, the tasters turned in their notes when they had finished. Some, embarrassed when they discovered how they had misjudged the wines, demanded their notes back. "I anticipated that," Spurrier said, chuckling. "I copied them all down."

The wines, in order of their rating by the French judges were:

Whites: Chateau Montelena 1973; Meursault-Charmes 1973, Domaine Roulot; Chalone Vineyard 1974; Spring Mountain Vineyards 1973; Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973, Joseph Drouhin; Freemark Abbey 1972; Batard-Montrachet 1973, Ramonet-Prudhon; Puligny-Montrachet "Les Pucelles" 1972, Domaine Leflaive; Veedercrest Vineyards 1972; and David Bruce Vineyards 1973.

Reds: Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973; Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970, Pauillac; Chateau Montrose 1970, St,-Estephe; Chateau Haut-Brion 1970, Graves; Ridge Vineyards Mountain Range 1971; Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases 1974, St.-Julien; Heitz Cellars Martha's Vineyard 1972, Clos Du Val 1972; Mayacamas Vineyards 1971; and Freemark Abbey 1968.

Among the American entrants, Veedercrest Vineyards is no longer in business and Spring Mountain has changed hands. Warren Winiarski, who made the winning red wine, is still the owner of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and Miljenko, or Mike, Grgich, who made the winning white, capitalized on that success and went off to start Grgich Hills Cellar.

In 1986, 10 years later, Spurrier re-created the red-wine part of the events in New York, with the same wines minus the Freemark Abbey, which were then between 13 and 16 years old. On that occasion, American wines placed first and second: Clos du Val and Ridge Vineyards.

Many at the 1986 tasting were surprised at how well the California wines had matured. In the wake of the Paris tasting, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic suggested that the California wines may have had an advantage over the French wines, which had only begun their traditionally long maturing process.

At a dinner in Washington earlier this month, held in conjunction with a Smithsonian Institution symposium on American wine, Winiarski again served his 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. At 23 years of age, the wine was fully mature and a delight to drink.

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Wednesday, May 8, 1996,
By Anthony Dias Blue

Marking a wine tasting that energized California

The Paris tasting of 1976 remains the most talked about wine tasting of this century. May 24 marks the 20th anniversary of this landmark event, when nine French judges sat down for a blind tasting of 20 wines. They didn't know it, but the competition pitted four top white Burgundies against six California chardonnays, and four of the best red Bordeaux against six California cabernets. When the judging panel entered its results, two California wines were declared the winners: the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1972 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon.

The upstart Americans had beaten French wines that represented the cream of French winemaking, including white Burgundies from Domain Leflaive, Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Roulot and Domaine Ramonet-Prudhon, and Bordeaux from Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion and Léoville-Las-Cases.

The staggering results were certainly a watershed for the Americans, but a Waterloo for the French? Perhaps it was not that grave, but California wines, which had been inching toward premium status, now were at the center of the world stage. Much was made of the tasting in the American press, with feature articles in Time and other major magazines.

At the time, many people used the results of the competition to bash the French and their supposedly elitist wine attitudes. But it was never the intent of organizer Steven Spurrier, a British wine writer and founder of L'Academie du Vin, a noted Parisian wine school, to incite patriotic chest thumping.

"The tasting was to show the French what was going on in California," Spurrier says. "Actually, I thought the wines from California would have no chance of winning, but if they showed honorably, my plan to draw attention to them would have come off."

His plan worked better than he could have ever imagined. Overnight, the California wine industry gained respectability and countless American consumers started to look for these small wines grown on native soils. The results also inspired more Americans to try their hand at winemaking, along the lines of Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap, eager to make the next great California chardonnay or cabernet. The revolution was under way.

In the 20 years since the Paris tasting, there have been countless follow-up competitions, and various wine writers and merchants have done their best to discredit the original results. But it's hard to fault the caliber of the original judges. Among those on the panel were Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy; Raymond Oliver of Le Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris; Odette Kahn, editor of the Revue du Vin de France; Claude Dubois-Millot, wine editor of Le Guide Gault et Millau; and Michel Dovaz of Institute Oenologique de France. As Spurrier says, "If they were not qualified, no one was."

There was another important benefit. "The effect on the French was to have them all scurrying over to California to see what was going on. This interfacing between French and Californian winemakers is, in my view, the single most important result of the tasting, and the only one that has undeniably positive results," Spurrier says.

San Francisco-based Anthony Dias Blue is author or "American Wine" and a writer for trade and consumer magazines.

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April 12-14, 1996
By Jerry Shriver

Toasting a California Wine Win

When James Barrett took the phone call that would thrust American wines into international prominence overnight, his first thought was, "Hot Damn, we knocked 'em in the creek!"

Publicly, he was gracious, saying, "Not bad for kids from the sticks." Not bad at all.

Twenty years ago next month, Barrett and fellow vintner Warren Winiarski learned that their little-known Napa Valley wines had beaten their mighty counterparts from Bordeaux and Burgundy in a Paris tasting that would become a landmark in wine history.

For once, California made the rest of the world quake.

The anniversary will be toasted around the world, including an exhibit and symposium sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

"There never had been anything like that happen in the wine world," recalls Barrett, vintner/owner of Chateau Montelena. "As far as achieving credibility, we couldn't have done that in 30 more years."

"Someone once said that was the most important telephone call in my life, certainly in my career," says Winiarski, owner/winemaker at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.

On May 24, 1976, nine of the most respected judges in France tasted 20 wines "blind" - sipping from unmarked glasses. The judges weren't aware, but four esteemed white Burgundies competed against six California chardonnays, and four of the best Bordeaux vied with six California cabernet sauvignons.

At the time, premium California wines (not the $2 jug varieties) were curiosities. France ruled the wine world while California was still regaining momentum destroyed by Prohibition. The state's wine community knew that treasures lurked in its vineyards, but most Americans didn't know a cabernet from a chardonnay, and most couldn't find California wines in store.

The time was ripe for a bombshell.

When the judges' results were tallied, Winiarski's 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon was declared the best red wine, better than Bordeaux's famed Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. And a 1973 chardonnay from Barrett's Chateau Montelena bested the white Burgundies.

The French gulped and sputtered, but later tastings produced similar results. Here was high-profile proof for the first time that grapes grown in California's fertile valleys and vinified using French inspired methods could yield world-class wine.

After Time magazine, trumpeted the results, California wine entered a new age. In the mid-'70s, producers took in about $150 million a year from non-jug wines; today it's $2.5 billion.

The Paris tasting marked "a major turning point in consumers' attitudes" and was a factor in the "staggering revolution in vineyard technology," says wine economist Jon Fredrikson.

Among the upcoming celebrations:

Bottles of the winning wines have just become part of the Smithsonian's permanent collection. They'll be exhibited at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Tuesday through early June. The Paris tasting will be discussed as part of a symposium on Wine in American History and Culture, May 10-11. (Call 202-357-2700)

A version of the tasting may be staged at the U.S. Embassy in Paris in November.

At the Napa Valley Wine Auction in St. Helena June 6-8, participants will bid on a re-creation of the Paris tasting featuring Barrett, Winiarski and tasting organizer Steven Spurrier. The lot includes dinner at the wineries with chefs Julie Child, Wolfgang Puck and Thomas Keller.

Today, neither Winiarski nor Barrett feels as though they beat the French; instead, we felt as though we were joining in a group, Winiarski says. It gave us confidence that the soil, climate and skills we possessed were adequate-more than adequate-to produce wines that could compete with the great wines of the world.

Says Barrett: We were simply carrying on, writing another chapter in the ongoing story in the book of wine.

Today's version of the victor

Sampling the current version of the 1976 Paris winner will give you a glimpse of what caused the fuss 20 years ago:

1993 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($24 - $6 in '73). People who have tasted the 1973 version of this wine say its contemporary counterpart is very much similar in style: delicate, fresh, balanced, not much oak and food-friendly. Grapefruit emerges from the bouquet, followed by apple, lemon and melon flavors, Exquisite.

Chateau Montelena has also just released a 1993 Chardonnay 20th Anniversary Commemorative Bottling ($75) honoring the Paris tasting. This wine is rich and decadent, with intense honey and pineapple flavors.