Wine & Beer

How Judgment of Paris changed the world of wine

It’s been 40 years since the verdict heard ’round the world: the famed Paris Tasting of 1976, credited with catapulting California wines onto the international stage.

The tasting, held May 24, 1976, pitted California cabernet and chardonnay against their French counterparts from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The tasting was blind, the nine judges were French, and when the wines were unveiled, the winners were a 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay and a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon from two Napa Valley wineries.

The tasting might have gone unnoticed except for the attendance of Time magazine reporter George Taber. His magazine published about 400 words deep inside the June 7, 1976, issue. It was headlined “Judgment of Paris” and proclaimed: “The unthinkable happened: California defeated all Gaul.” It wasn’t long before other newspapers and magazines picked up the news.

It was a stunning result for a tasting that was originally put together as a public relations move. Steven Spurrier had organized it to get publicity for his wine shop and to mark the American bicentennial. He was sure the French wines would win both categories

The results surprised even the California vintners. “I knew that wine was good, but I didn’t know how good,” Warren Winiarski, who made the winning Stag’s Leap cab, told me on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the tasting. Jim Barrett, the late proprietor of Chateau Montelena, famously told Taber: “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”

In the intervening years, there have been a several re-enactments of the Paris tasting; I attended one in Napa on the 30th anniversary in which we tasted the same cabs that were in the 1976 event.

That same year, Taber published a book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.” Ten years earlier, in May 1996, the tasting had become an official part of U.S. history, when a bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay and a bottle of 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon were added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

For the 40th, the celebrations have continued. Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars participated earlier this month in events at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to commemorate the tasting.

Both wineries are holding open houses Tuesday. And one of the lots in next month’s Auction Napa Valley, donated by Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, features a dinner that will include the winning wines.

I suspect that California wines eventually would have gotten the recognition they deserve, both at home and abroad. But the Paris tasting almost certainly jump-started the process.

It also demonstrated to the world that great wine could be made outside France, even in the New World.

As Winiarski told me, “The whole global effort at wines changed. … There were no hard and fast boundaries anymore to what could be done.”

Pick of the week

J. Lohr 2012 Cuvée Pau ($50) This blend is inspired by the Pauillac district of Bordeaux, where cabernet sauvignon dominates. This wine is dark and dense, with bright black cherry, hints of pencil shavings and spice and firm tannins.