Such was the title of George M Taber’s book, published in 2005 by Scribner and never out of print. It features California and its wines in the second half of the last century, the meat in the sandwich being the blind tasting of California and French wines created by my wine school, L’Académie du Vin, on May 24th 1976. Taber, part of the Time magazine bureau in Paris at that time, was also attending the wine school which I had started in early 1973. Had he not accepted our invitation to attend, and had my wife Bella not been there to take the photos, the results of that day might not have become international news, and their significance would hardly have been noticed.
At L’Académie du Vin, we had been receiving many visits from California winemakers and top US wine writers, all bringing bottles for us to try. American-born Patricia Gallagher – who was running the school at the time, as I was heavily involved in the busy wine shop – suggested we give a tasting to draw attention to the high quality wines California had to offer. She had spent time in Napa in September 1975, returning even more impressed with the Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons. I then visited over Easter 1976 to make a final selection of the best, six of each.
While we had held regular tastings of non-French wines (sourced from the embassies) before, we knew that this one needed to be special: these wines deserved attention. We decided to invite some of the best and most influential wine authorities from across France. Fortunately, we had gained ourselves a decent reputation by that time, and they all accepted. Now all we needed was a ‘peg’ to hang it on, and Patricia provided the perfect answer: 1976 was the bi-centennial of the American War of Independence. What better year in which to draw attention to their wines?
It was not planned as a blind tasting, but a while before the event I realized that of the nine tasters, only one – Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – would have experienced such wines before (he was married to a girl from San Francisco). I feared that had they known what they were, the panel might have damned the wines with faint praise – ‘c’est pas mal’ – and we were after more than that. So I selected four of the best white burgundies and four of the very top red Bordeaux from the shop to be tasted blind with the Californians, to make an interesting comparison, as indeed it turned out to be.
The 10 wines, whites first, were served one by one. The tasters then tasted them and ranked them using the 20 point scale; their marks were then added up and divided by nine (the number of tasters). Here are the results, wines starred being from California.
*Chateau Montelena 1973 (14.67).
Meursault-Charmes Roulot 1973 (14.05)
*Chalone Vineyard 1974 (13.44)
*Spring Mountain Vineyard 1973 (11.55)
Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin 1973 (11.22)
*Freemark Abbey Winery 1972 (11.11)
Bâtard-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive 1972 (10.44)
Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles 1972 (9.89)
*Veedercrest Vineyards 1972 (9.78)
*David Bruce Winery 1973 (4.67)
*Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 (14.7)
Château Mouton Rothschild 1970 (14.00)
Château Montrose 1970 (13.94)
Château Haut-Brion 1970 (13.55)
*Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971 (11.50)
Château Léoville Las Cases 1971 (10.78)
*Mayacamus Vineyards 1971 (9.94)
*Clos du Val Winery 1972 (9.72).
*Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard 1970 (9.39).
*Freemark Abbey Winery 1969 (8.67).
So, three California whites were in the top five (six tasters put Montelena first, three preferred Chalone) and two California reds (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Ridge Vineyards). Once the word got out, the telephone rang off the hook at Stag’s Leap… Warren Winiarski went on to sell his property for $185 million in 2007; Mike Grgich of Montelena went on to found his own highly successful Napa winery, Grgich Hills. After that tasting in 1976, California wine was firmly on the map. It is no coincidence that the first vintage of ‘Opus One’, the Napa Valley joint venture between Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi, was 1979, just three years later.
Twenty years after the Judgement of Paris, bottles of Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon were placed in Washington DC’s Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and a further 20 years on, in May 2016, Bella and I were guests of the Smithsonian for a three-day celebration of the ‘Judgement’. The House of Representatives had recently voted that May 24th 1976 had become an important day in American History, in honour of which they gave me a signed and sealed document and an American flag. On the second night of the celebrations there was a black tie dinner for 600 at the Smithsonian and I was asked to wrap up the evening. Taking into account the room’s anticipation, I said: ‘It is very just and fitting that we should be here at the Smithsonian to celebrate how a Croat (Grgich) and a Pole (Winiarski) made American history in Paris with a little help from an Englishman.’
Whatever May 24th 1976 in Paris did for California, it subsequently inspired a series of Old World/New World blind tastings. Its lasting legacy was to have created a template whereby little-known wines of quality could be compared to well-known wines of quality. If the judges themselves were of quality, too, then their opinions on the wines would be respected. Never was this better illustrated than by the ‘Berlin Tastings’, about which I will write next month…
Wine writer and consultant Steven Spurrier, joined the wine trade in London in 1964 and later moved to Paris where he bought a wine shop in 1971, and then opened L’Académie du Vin, France’s first private wine school in 1973. Spurrier organized the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, which unexpectedly elevated the status of California wine and promoted the expansion of wine production in the New World.