The Judgment of Paris, 40 years later

Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the famed Paris Tasting of 1976, credited with catapulting California wines onto the international stage. The tasting, held May 24, 1976, pitted California cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay against their French counterparts from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The tasting was blind, the nine judges were French, and when the wines were unveiled, the winners were a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, both from Napa Valley wineries.

The tasting might have gone unnoticed except for the attendance of Time magazine reporter George Taber. His magazine published about 400 words deep inside the June 7, 1976, issue. It was headlined “Judgment of Paris” and proclaimed: “The unthinkable happened: California defeated all Gaul.” It wasn’t long before other newspapers and magazines picked up the news.

It was a stunning result for a tasting that was originally put together as a public relations move. Steven Spurrier had organized it to get publicity for his Paris wine shop and to mark the American Bicentennial. He was sure the French wines would win both categories

Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. (Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago)
Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. (Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago)

Spurrier wasn’t the only one who was surprised by the results. They were a shock even to the California vintners. “I knew that wine was good, but I didn’t know how good,” Warren Winiarski, who made the Stag’s Leap cab, told me on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the tasting. Jim Barrett, the late proprietor of Chateau Montelena, famously told Taber: “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”

In the intervening years, there have been several re-enactments of the Paris tasting; I attended one in Napa on the 30th anniversary in which we tasted the same cabs that were in the 1976 event. (The 1971 Ridge Monte Bello from the Santa Cruz Mountains placed first in the re-enactment; my top wine was the 1972 Clos Du Val cab.) That same year, Taber published a book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.” Ten years earlier, in May 1996, the tasting had become an official part of U.S. history, when a bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a bottle of 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon were added to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

grgich label

For the 40th, the celebrations have continued. Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (now part of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates) participated last week in events at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to commemorate the tasting. Both wineries are holding open houses Tuesday, on the date of the 40th anniversary. Grgich Hills Estate has also been celebrating the anniversary; Mike Grgich was the Chateau Montelena winemaker who made the winning chardonnay, a variety for which he’s become well known at his own winery. (The winery even produces a Paris Tasting Commemorative chardonnay.)

One of the lots in next month’s Auction Napa Valley, donated by Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, features a dinner that will include the winning wines. Grgich Hills, too, has donated a private dinner with Grgich, featuring chef Masaharu Morimoto.

montelena cab

All three wineries continue to be well-respected and produce high-quality wines. Chateau Montelena still makes a very good chardonnay, although it’s become better known for cabernet sauvignon. (Its estate vineyard is in Calistoga, after all, which isn’t exactly chardonnay country.) In addition to its chardonnay, Grgich Hills is a top-notch producer of cabernet sauvignon and fumé blanc. I haven’t tasted any of the Stag’s Leap wines for a couple of years, but the cabs (there are several) have been highly rated by several publications.

I suspect that California wines eventually would have gotten the recognition they deserve, both at home and abroad. But the Paris tasting almost certainly jump-started the process. It also demonstrated to the world that great wine could be made outside France, even in the New World. As Winiarski told me, “The whole global effort at wines changed. … There were no hard and fast boundaries anymore to what could be done.”

I’m sure we’ll mark the day again in 10 years, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary. But then maybe it will be time to put the event to rest. California wines have taken their rightful place on the world stage. As Paul Draper, the man responsible for the Ridge Monte Bello, said at the 30th anniversary re-enactment:  “Let’s move on.”