The tasting that put California on the world wine map

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All nine judges seated with Steven Spurrier sixth from the left and Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner of Domaine de la Romanee- Conti, at the head

On the 40th anniversary of this famous tasting, which revolutionised the world of wine, Steven Spurrier tells the illuminating back story

My invitation to attend the Naples (Florida) Winter Wine Festival came with the request that I create a Lot for their annual auction for the Naples Children and Education Foundation which is dedicated to improving the lives of under-privileged and at-risk children.

The reason for my presence was that this year was the 40th anniversary of the Judgement of Paris, the tasting that my wine school L’Academie du Vin held on May 24, 1976, the 200th anniversary of the American War of Independence. L’Academie’s tasting room in the centre of Paris at the time was a magnet for visiting winemakers and American wine writers keen to show us what was going on in California.

The wines were a revelation to our French-biased palates and Patricia Gallagher, American-born director of the school, took her summer vacation to visit California. Thanks to introductions from wine writer Robert Finigan, Gallagher went from winery to winery and came back totally enthused.

Throughout the autumn we made a plan to show carefully-selected California Chardonnays and Cabernets to an elite group of tasters with the aim of getting their quality recognised and perhaps talked about. L’Academie du Vin, the first independent and self-financing wine school in France, was well-respected, so Patricia and I had little difficulty in getting acceptances from our list of potential judges.

The judges were Pierre Brejoux, Inspector General of the Appellation d’Origne Contrôlée Board; Michel Dovaz, head teacher at L’Academie du Vin; Claude Dubois-Millot of Gault Millau Magazine; Odette Kahn, editor of the Revue du Vin de France; Raymond Oliver, chef and owner of Le Grand Véfour three-star restaurant; Pierre Tari, owner of Château Giscours in Margaux; Christian Vanneque, head sommelier at La Tour d’Argent 3-star restaurant; Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; Jean-Claude Vrinat, owner of Taillevent three-star restaurant.

The next step was to find a venue suitable for the occasion. Thanks to Ernst Van Damm, one of the regular clients at my “Caves de la Madeleine” wine shop and publicity director of the nearby Intercontinental Hotel, we were offered the terrace rooms from 3 pm to 6 pm on May 24, 1976. All that was needed now was for me to go to California and make the final selection, so my wife and I flew out in late April to San Francisco and, again with the help of wine writer Robert Finigan, set to work.

After the tasting we were asked why there were no “big” names such as Mondavi, Beaulieu Vineyards or Buena Vista. This was because we were looking for smaller, “hands-on” estates that were known in France as “boutique” wineries.

The selection of six Chardonnays and six Cabernets was made and two bottles of each were purchased. To avoid problems with French customs had the wines been shipped, they were carried by hand to Paris by a group of 20 or so wine producers and their wives, under the guidance of the great André Tchelistcheff for a wine tour of France organised by Joanne Dickinson.

It was only a week or so before the tasting that it occurred to us that only one of the judges – Aubert de Villaine whose wife, Pamela, was from San Francisco – would have ever tasted California wine before and that the other eight, knowing that the State was a little north of Mexico on America’s West Coast, might have taken geography into account and not given our selection the attention we thought they deserved.

This realisation persuaded us to turn it into a blind tasting with top benchmark clarets and white Burgundies. Choosing the best of these from my shop, on the day I asked the judges if they had a problem with my including benchmarks and they agreed that this would indeed make the tasting more interesting. The order of pouring had been drawn out of a hat the day before.

The Chardonnays were tasted first, all judges marking out of 20 with their marks totalled and divided by nine, the number of judges on the panel. The result was:

  1. Château Montelena 1973
  2. Meursault-Charmes 1973 Roulot
  3. Chalone 1974
  4. Spring Mountain 1973
  5. Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973 Drouhin
  6. Freemark Abbey 1972 
  7. Batard-Montrachet 1973 Ramonet-Prudhon
  8. Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles 1972 Leflaive
  9. Veedercrest 1972
  10. David Bruce 1973

With three of the top five wines from California this was a surprise result, but the scores of the individual judges were conclusive, for Château Montelena was rated top by six judges and Chalone top by the other three. Patricia had a tie between Meursault-Charmes and Spring Mountain, and I placed Freemark Abbey and Batard-Montrachet equal first, but our marks were not counted.

I had announced these results while the red wines were being poured and got the impression that the judges would be more protective of their country this time and so it turned out. The results were:

  1. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
  2. Ch Mouton-Rothschild 1970
  3. Ch Montrose 1970
  4. Ch Haut-Brion 1970
  5. Ridge Montebello 1971
  6. Ch Léoville-Las Cases 1971
  7. Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970
  8. Clos du Val 1972
  9. Mayacamas 1971 
  10. Freemark Abbey 1969

While there were 5.5 points between the first and second in the whites, Stag’s Leap was just 1.5 points ahead of Mouton-Rothschild and there were only 5.5 points between the top four wines. Many judges had rated the California Cabernets in single digits, which is rare in a tasting of fine wines. Patricia had placed Heitz Martha’s Vineyard first and I had a four-way tie between Montrose, Mouton- Rothschild, Ridge and Stag’s Leap.

We had invited the top French press to attend this event, but knew in advance the idea did not interest them. Patricia then remembered that George Taber of Time Magazine’s French office, had taken one of our wine courses recently and called him, receiving the reply that he would come if there was nothing else on.

Due to a slow day in the office he was there from the start, with my wife Bella as house photographer. One week later Time carried his description of the tasting under the title, “The Judgement of Paris”, which was to become the title of George Taber’s seminal book, published by Scribner in 2005 and now in many languages, even French, with the subtitle “the tasting that revolutionised wine.”

May 1976 certainly did a lot for California wines and although I became persona non grata in Bordeaux for a while and was physically thrown out of Ramonet-Prudhon’s cellars in Chassagne-Montrachet, the results of the tasting remained. Some intelligent producers went to California to see what all the fuss was about and I think it is no coincidence that the first vintage of Opus One, the collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild was 1979.

For me, the importance of the Paris Tasting was to create a template whereby unknown wines of quality could go up against the recognised benchmarks and, if judged successful by an authoritative panel, would see their region and their brands getting the recognition that they deserved.

Amongst the criticisms I received was that the clarets had been tasted too young, so I set up a re-run of the same red wines in New York in May 1986. Once again, they were nine tasters, headed by Alexis Lichine, wine writers Alexis Bespaloff and Robert Finigan, George Lepré from the Paris Ritz and the young Bartholomew Broadbent. Here Clos du Val 2002 came top, Ridge second and Stag’s Leap sixth. The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux were in the US at the time, promoting their 1985s and they held me personally responsible for the failure of their campaign.

This, and having proved that both reds aged well, meant I had no intention of holding a re-run in 1996 and it was only after pressure from Jacob, Lord Rothschild who supported the Copia Centre in Napa, that I was persuaded to hold, on May 24, 2006, a 30th anniversary tasting of the same red wines, simultaneously at 10 am at Copia and 6 pm at Berry Bros & Rudd in London.

Again, there were nine tasters on each panel, with Patricia Gallagher and Christian Vanneque joining such palates as Anthony Dias Blue in Napa, and Michel Dovaz and Michel Bettane joining me, Hugh Johnson, Michael Broadbent, and Jancis Robinson in London. Both panels placed Ridge Montebello 1971 at the top and when our scores were joined, California was seen to have taken the top five places, followed by Mouton Rothschild 1970, with Freemark Abbey 1969 last.

So, was it a final triumph for California? For the original wines, certainly, but in London when we held an open tasting of the same wines and a few others from the 2000 vintage, the votes went overwhelmingly in favour of Bordeaux. My conclusion was that in the early 1970s France was resting on its laurels – no visible competition, so no reason to try harder – and by the early 2000s to a certain extent, so was California.

The opening day of the Naples Winter Wine Festival featured a walk down memory lane by George Taber and myself, who was there on the day, followed by a tasting of Château Montelena Chardonnays with owner Bo Barrett, and of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernets with CEO Ted Baseler.

My introduction was an overview of the early days in Paris with L’Academie du Vin and the decision to hold this tasting, while George, as an observer rather than a participant, told it like it was. “Ah, back to France,” said one taster sipping the Freemark Abbey Chardonnay. “This must be California, it has no nose,” said another about the Haut Brion 1970. Our double-act was well-received and then came the tasting.

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Bo Barrett, Ted Baseler, Bruce Nichols, Steven Spurrier, George Taber, and Sandi Moran pictured at The Vintage Cellar Tasting event of the Naples Winter Wine Festival in Florida

CHÂTEAU MONTELENA

(All wines were served from magnums)

Bo Barrett mentioned that the 1973 had not undergone malolactic fermentation and nor had any later vintages of Chardonnay.

1992 A vintage where everything went well, the wine spending longer in barrel than usual as it was slow to develop. Full gold, quite nutty on the nose, but still fresh, quite “Rhôn-ish” with broad flavours, not fading at all, fine firm finish.

1998 A late harvest saved by miraculous weather in October, the wine was quite tight and green in its youth but now shows a fuller colour than 1992, less fresh but with good structure, more honeyed than nutty. Acidity lifts the finish.

2001 A year with low yields but near perfect fruit. Full gold with a touch of green, richer than 1998 but overall fresher with really good depth of Chardonnay fruit that shows both maturity and complexity.

2004 An average year in quantity and quality, but one that has turned out to be a classic. Fresh lemon-gold, slightly nutty, with very good precision of fruit, it has fine depth and superb texture, a very good wine.

2008 A mid-September harvest with part of the crop aged in tanks to preserve the fruit. Full yellow, full, honeyed nose, really good grip on the palate from the retained acidity, mid-way between young and old, will evolve well.

STAG’S LEAP CELLARS SLV ESTATE

Washington State’s famous Château Ste Michelle winery purchased Stag’s Leap in 2008 for $185 million and CEO Ted Baseler said he was very happy with the investment. The quality of his 2008 and especially 2012 makes me believe him.

1983 An exceptional vintage for Cabernet: robust colour, mature rim, warm Cabernet nose, very good vineyard fruit, still a lovely wine.

1993 (with 5% Petit Verdot). An ideal growing season for uniform ripening to natural richness. Dense colour, autumnal, briary fruits on the nose, rich (for Cabernet) on the palate with good grip on the finish.

1998 (with 2.6% Merlot). A rainy vintage after the exceptional 1997. Robust red, mature rim, showing vigour and depth on the palate, but not the elegance expected from SLV vineyard.

2008 A good harvest with natural concentration of fruit in the vineyard. Superb, velvety, dense colour, wonderfully rich fruit on the nose and really good expression of Cabernet on the palate. Powerful yet elegant, needs five years.

2012 A textbook vintage for Napa Valley. Wonderful, velvety black-red colour, superb expression of Cabernet, even better than 2008, very fine vineyard depth, combining energy and superbly polished winemaking.

My Auction Lot winner’s prize was for two couples to accompany me to Napa for a weekend in mid-May, staying at Meadowood Resort, dinner at Napa Valley Reserve with Napa wines from the years before 1976, lunch the next day at Château Montelena, a visit to Mike Grgich who made the 1973 at Grgich Hills, dinner at Stag’s Leap, then on Sunday a brunch at Jean-Charles Boisset’s Raymond Vineyards, when I shall challenge him to the Judgement of Napa, my Bride Valley 2013 Blanc de Blancs against his JCB 2013.

The Lot fetched $120,000 and I shall make sure it’s worth it.

A slightly different version of this article appeared in Sommelier India magazine, April-May 2016

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