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The Judgement of Paris

The Judgement of Paris


The Judgment of Paris (the wine one, not the Greek Mythology one) was a blind tasting in 1976 that pitched the underdog Californian wines against some of the world’s most highly regarded French wines.  The tasting was set to cement the reputation of French wines in stone.  But what happened shook the wine world and changed the playing field forever.

In the 1970s, California wine looked nothing like it does today.  If you were to drive through Napa Valley nowadays, you would see modern, state of the art wineries producing some of the best known and most sought after wine on the planet.  It would be hard to imagine a scenario where any wine drinker wouldn’t have heard of a “Napa Cab” or a “California Chardonnay”.  However, less than 50 years ago, California wine was barely on anyone’s radar.  The industry was mostly a few farmers just north of San Francisco producing affordable wines for anyone who could make it over the dirt roads to get there.  Tastings were usually free (I paid $80 for a tasting at one winery last time I was there!!) and the tasters could keep their tasting glass to take home.

The tasting was a foregone conclusion.  France was set to win and this was merely a formality.   Steven Spurrier, a wine merchant in Paris, had managed to organise a panel of some of the most highly regarded judges in France at the time.  These judges included sommeliers, restaurant and chateau owners from some of the most respected establishments in France.  The judges included Christian Vanneque, Sommelier of Tour D’Argent, Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Odette Kahn, Editor of La Revue du vin de France.

The tasting had two arms. California Chardonnay vs White Burgundy and California Cabernet Sauvignon vs Red Bordeaux.  The format was a blind tasting, and the judges were asked to rate each wine out of 20.  The scores were aggregated to give a mean score for each.  Patricia Gallagher and Steven Spurrier’s ratings were not taken into account. That left the ratings of only French judges for the official scores.

The results completely surprised the wine world.  In the white category the winner was Chateau Montelena of California.  Indeed, 3 of the top 4 white wines were from California.  The others being Chalone Vineyard and Spring Mountain Vineyard.  The only French wine to come close was Meursault Charmes Roulot, who finished 2nd.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars won the red category by finishing just 1.5 points above Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.  This time, the French wines filled the top of the table with Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Montrose finishing 3rd and 4th respectively.

In the aftermath of the tasting, the results had shocked everyone.  Odette Khan unsuccessfully demanded her ballot back and later criticised the tasting.  But the results were in and the story was out.  California wine beat French wine in a blind tasting. 

The results of The Judgement of Paris had a knock-on effect for Californian wine, but also for other producers across the USA and the whole New World of wine.  It demonstrated that it is possible to make high quality wine outside of the traditional regions.  This meant that growers and customers everywhere started to take their wines more seriously.  As a result, New World wine is better, French wine is better.  The effects of the tasting should not be underestimated, and every wine drinker today is drinking better wine because of it.  As Jim Barrett, part owner of Chateau Montelena, put it: “not bad for some kids from the sticks”.

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