If ever there was a wine-themed Cinderella story, it would have to be the 1976 Paris Tasting, also known somewhat satirically as the "Judgment of Paris." This historic wine tasting has become a landmark event for the California wine industry in general and was a pivotal turning point for the Napa Valley in particular.
The Judgment of Paris in 1976
As the brainchild of British wine enthusiast, Steve Spurrier, who owned both a small wine shop and a prestigious wine school, L'Academie du Vin, in the heart of Paris, the blind tasting was designed to shine a bright spotlight on the quality of wines coming out of California to the French wine community and as it promptly played out, the wine world at large.
After scouting out the best California contenders for both Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and selecting the French contestants, all of stellar repute, Spurrier set up what would be called by some as the "Tasting of the Century." Though Spurrier did not expect California to take the cake by any means, he believed it would be good exposure for American wine and exceedingly educational for key players in the French wine industry and beyond.
On May 24, 1976, nine well-qualified, French judges including representatives from the AOC regulatory board, Institut Oenologique de France (the Wine Institute of France), and a handful of top Parisian restaurant owners and sommeliers, all representing the cream of the French oenology crop, came together to take part in a blind tasting that essentially pit California Chardonnay against the crème de la crème of white Burgundy and California Cab against idols of all idols, the top Grands Crus from Bordeaux, two of which were the renowned first growths of Mouton Rothschild and Haut Brion.
The White Wine All-Star Lineup
The competition took Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, from both California and France and essentially allowed them to duke it out. In a fairly straightforward contest, the blind tasting format brought the nine judges through the series of wines beginning with the Chardonnay and white Burgundy selections.
There were six California Chardonnay contenders and four white Burgundies in the lineup. Many of the California Chardonnays came from what are now familiar estates: Chalone Vineyard, Freemark Abbey, Veedercrest Vineyards, the David Bruce Winery, and Spring Mountain Vineyard. In terms of the players for the white Burgundy houses: Domaine Roulot, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Domaine Ramonet-Prudhon and Domaine Leflaive rounded out team Burgundy.
The Heavyweight Champions
Again in the red wine taste-off, Spurrier picked six California Cabs and four top-quality reds from Bordeaux. The competitive California Cab estates included Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Ridge Vineyards, Heitz Wine Cellars, Clos du Val, Freemark Abbey Winery (again) and Mayacamas Vineyards.
The French contingent was made up of some heavy-hitters with first and second growths well represented in Château Mouton-Rothschild and Haut Brion, along with Château Montrose and Château Leoville Las Cases.
In what began as a fairly low-profile tasting so far as the media was concerned, ended up rocking the wine world right out of its orbit with a now-historic Time's, piece entitled, "Judgment of Paris," written by George Taber, the sole journalist on-site (and later made into a full-fledged book by the same name).
Right out of the gates, the French judges, compared and contrasted California's offerings with the royal French wine lineup, leaving several scathing remarks in their recorded wake, clearly intended for the New World wines, but ironically distributed to a few of the French contenders.
California took on the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy and won on both battlegrounds, taking first place with the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellar's S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. The runner-ups were the 1970 Mouton-Rothschild and 1973 Meursault Charmes Roulot. The repercussions of the Paris Tasting were far-reaching.
First and perhaps foremost, it seriously raised interest levels for California's wines in both domestic and international markets. Second, it spurred rapid interface between French and American vintners, taking best practices from both sides of the pond and allowing for the open exchange of ideas, technology and tried and true tradition to be readily communicated. Finally, aside from placing the Napa Valley firmly on the global wine map, the Paris Tasting also validated many of the new winery startups and attracted many more in the process, effectively doing more than its fair share to make the Napa Valley the food and wine icon it is today.
How to Learn More About the 1976 Paris Tasting
The Wineries: The story of the Paris Tasting lives on in several forms. You can experience the legacies of this historic wine tasting in person when you visit the Napa wineries that participated in the Judgment of Paris 35 years ago. While most of the wineries that were selected for the 1976 tasting are still open today, many folks are interested in stopping by the top takers of Cabernet and Chardonnay.
As such, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena provide a historical and hands-on reference point of what the region offered back then and what it's up to now. Both wineries offer tours and tastings seven days a week. You can also check out Grgich Hills to get a glimpse of the hands behind the wine, just off of Hwy 29, owner Mike Grgich was the winemaker that steered Chateau Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay from start to finish.
The Movie: The Paris Tasting has also been thoroughly memorialized through the movie Bottle Shock, a 2008 independent film that is roughly based on the 1976 Paris Tasting, featuring components of Chateau Montelena's story to stardom.
The Book: You can also read the story details in George Taber's book, Judgment of Paris, which recounts the Time's reporter's firsthand experience of the 1976 Tasting of Paris, play by play.
In the Smithsonian: Finally, the landmark Paris Tasting has since been duplicated all over the world with different wines, different judges, and varying results; however, the original, indisputable 1976 Paris Tasting has been given permanent reprieve in the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History, where bottles of the '73 Stag's Leap Cab and '73 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay are on exhibit as part of the museum's permanent collection.
Though the 1976 Paris Tasting played a crucial role in redirecting the world's wine spotlight towards a little-known wine growing region just north of San Francisco, it also confirmed legendary theories from Jefferson to Mondavi—that America was more than capable of producing world-class wine.