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Historic French tasting celebrated


Every year on May 24, the California wine industry pays homage to an event that took place 40 years ago in 1976.

Often referred to as the “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting, it sent wine shock waves around the world. Simply said, a selection of our regional wines bested the French in a blind tasting event and essentially put the wines of Northern California in the spotlight and changed the California wine industry into a global player.

If you aren’t familiar with the event or the embarrassing moment for French wine connoisseurs, it was a blind tasting of California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons pitted against some highly regarded French white Burgundies and red Bordeaux wines at a hotel on the outskirts of Paris. An Englishman, Steven Spurrier, was the wine importer and Paris wine shop owner who organized the competitive blind tasting. He included some big names in the French wine and restaurant field.

Spurrier had traveled and tasted through California a few months earlier … . He had to go through a number of hoops at the time to make it work, including more than 30 individuals carrying a bottle each from the U.S. for the tasting. At the time, French customs allowed only one bottle of wine per person to be brought into their country. Not to mention the set-up logistics and unusually warm temperatures that week. The 10 Chardonnays and 10 reds included six each from California with the other four from France. Surprisingly, the selections included several of their exceptional vintages and a few average years for our players.

In the end, Napa’s Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay and Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon were the top-scoring wines among the eight French judges with several other California wines making the top five choices in each category.

Needless to say the French were in disbelief, and some even challenged the validity, wanting to see their scoring cards. In the end, the aftershocks of this legendary event were brought to worldwide attention by a TIME magazine article written by George Taber, their Paris correspondent, who was the only American writer in attendance.

Mild-mannered Steven Spurrier caught a bit of flak for his upstaging event. But it was not long before Parisians started checking out his small shop, which also started offering a limited selection of California wines. Two years after the event, my wife and I were fortunate to attend one of his week-long French wine classes in the back of his shop. Taught by his helper, Patricia Gallegher, the class was unpretentious and opened our eyes to regional French wines and incredible cheeses.

The impact on these small wineries in Napa and the Central Coast was immediate when the article appeared a few weeks later. The Napa Valley players also included Spring Mountain Winery, Freemark Abbey Winery, Veedercrest Winery, and Clos Du Val Winery, all of which were just several years old. Mayacamas Winery was one of the older players dating back to the early 1960s. Other California participants included Ridge Winery, David Bruce Winery, and Chalone Winery.

As a result, Napa Valley would never be the same. Its popularity as a wine destination has grown to the point that traffic, housing and winery saturation are now big issues. Not to mention the crazy prices for their wines, real estate and grapes. So celebrate this important wine anniversary tonight with any California wine and toast the real winners from the competition … more good wine for all of us!