40 years ago this week, a tasting organised in Paris by a young Englishman, Steven Spurrier, stunned the wine world. He invited a group of renowned French judges – restauranteurs, producers and wine writers – to compare (blind) a selection of top Californian wines – Chardonnays and Cabernets – with leading Burgundies and Bordeaux. Of course, the French wines were certain to come out on top; it was really only a question of how close the best of the Californian wines could score.
Only it didn’t work out like that at all! From the 10 Chardonnays, the winner was Chateau Montelena from vineyards in Napa and Calistoga with 2 further Californian bottles – from Chalone Vineyards and Spring Mountain – 3rd and 4th. Just Domaine Roulot’s Meursault Premier Cru in 2nd place prevented a clean sweep in this category.
Surely the French would do better with their reds with star names Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion among their representatives? Actually, no! Those 2 managed 2nd and 3rd places but the winner, yet again, was from California: Stag’s Leap’s Cabernet from Napa Valley.
(picture: thanks to Wikipedia)
Amazingly, the only journalist present (Spurrier was, at the time, a wine shop and wine school owner – his illustrious writing career came later) was George Taber from Time Magazine. He submitted a lengthy article only to see it edited down to just 4 paragraphs. But that was enough, especially as it appeared under the eye-catching title “The Judgement of Paris”. As soon as the magazine hit the newsstands, demand for Montelena and Stag’s Leap went crazy while some of the defeated French producers accused Spurrier of rigging the results (he hadn’t).
But the tasting didn’t just benefit the winning producers; Robert Mondavi commented later that ‘it put California on the world map of great wine-producing regions’. And I’d suggest that also it gave credibility to quality-minded producers in other parts of the world who, up to that time, hadn’t been taken seriously by wine lovers who were, by and large, traditionally Francophile.
I’ve tried France v the Rest of the World tastings on a number of occasions, generally with similar unpredictable results to The Judgement of Paris. It’s always great fun. Why not try it yourself with some friends?