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The Judgement of Paris
The wine tasting that changed the world

Over the last month, there has been a lot of buzz in the wine industry and in the media in general about the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Scribner has just published The Judgment of Paris – California vs. France – the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George Taber. And there is even a movie in production about the tasting, starring Hugh Grant as the young organizer, Steven Spurrier, who is now an editor of the UK's Decanter magazine.

On May 24, 1976, a seismic change occurred in the wine world. Steven Spurrier, who was then a young Paris wine store owner, organized a blind tasting of French vs. California wines based upon a "wouldn't it be fun" discussion he had with employee Patricia Gallagher (who will probably be played by Julia Roberts in the movie). He gathered a distinguished panel of French wine judges and they did the unthinkable. They selected a Stags Leap Cellars Cabernet and a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay as superior to a group of first growth Bordeauxs and Grand Cru Burgundys!

For California wine, the world didn't just change on that day... the industry was transformed. It was the tasting that launched a thousand wineries, legitimized California and encouraged wine production throughout the new world. You could say that it was even responsible for today's hyper-inflated Napa Valley Cabernet and Chardonnay prices. In 1976, Stags Leap Cabernet only commanded about $6 a bottle. Today, their Cask 23 Cabernet sells for about $150. The Federal Reserve Consumer Price Index Calculator returned a current value price of $21.25 for that 1976 $6 retail. I suppose that's what a little legitimacy will do for you.

Last month, Jan Shrem, owner of Clos Pegase, forwarded me a copy of a review he had written of the book, Judgment of Paris. I just finished the book and I agree with his assessment. Following is what Jan thought:

Since 1980, when I sold my publishing company and decided to make wine, I have read innumerable books on the subject. But I just read one so exciting, so down to earth and easy to read, that I decided to recommend it to you: Judgment of Paris, California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine, by George M. Taber.

The tasting that shook the wine world was organized by a young British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, who had recently opened a wine store in Paris, Caves de la Madelaine, as well as an English language wine school, and wanted to get some publicity. This blind tasting of California versus the leading Bordeaux and Burgundy wines took place by an eminent panel of French wine judges. Unknowingly, they chose a California Chardonnay and a California Cabernet over the top French counterparts.

If this were all, I would not call your attention to it. But I do, enthusiastically, because it really is the history of the wine world of the last 50 years; how France, which for centuries was believed to be the only country that could produce great wine, was bested by the New World and how this competition, in turn, went to improve wine in many countries. It not only relates in detail the modern rebirth of California winemaking, but describes its founders, the vines chosen, explaining the plantings step by step, and equally how they made the wine, always in fascinating detail. We learn of their backgrounds, their courage.

Of course, when the results of the tasting were announced, the French cried “foul,” contending that their wines age more slowly, but over the next 20 years the tasting was repeated in several countries with similar results. This event went on to affect the international wine scene, which continues to this day. From this book I learned a lot I did not know; the author gives us charts that make it very easy to understand the world of wine and why the best are found in 50° to 30° North latitude and in the South, from 30° to 50° as well. In the former, he places California and Oregon, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. In the South he places Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

There is another chart of the effects this tasting had on exports. Comparing 1990 vs 2003, French and Spanish exports declined 25%, while the New World broke through in a landslide: the US +17%, Argentina +300%, Australia more than 500%, Chile more than 600% and New Zealand more than 800%! Finally the author brings up our wine history to the present, up to and including the sale of the Robert Mondavi Winery.

— Jan Shrem