Columnist, Food

Forty years ago, a publicity stunt for a small wine school in Paris changed the world of wine forever. The scene would look unremarkable today: Nine wine professionals swirling, sniffing, sipping, spitting and scoring their way through 20 wines in a “blind tasting,” meaning the wines were not identified until after the scores were tallied. Yet the Paris Tasting, also known as the Judgment of Paris, became famous because of its quirky cast of characters, a bit of luck and, most of all, the results: California wines beat the best of France.

The story is well known among wine lovers. Steven Spurrier, a young British expat who owned the Académie du Vin and an adjacent store, Caves de la Madeleine, in central Paris, and his American associate, Patricia Gallagher, held the tasting of California and French wines in honor of that year’s American Bicentennial. They wanted to draw attention to the revolutionary new wines of California. The judging panel included some of France’s wine and culinary elite. And while the organizers implored several journalists to cover the event, only one came: George M. Taber, a young correspondent for Time magazine who had taken a class at Spurrier’s school and who had nothing else to cover. To this day, the California wine industry is grateful that May 24, 1976, was a slow news day in Paris.

Taber’s short article deep in the June 7, 1976, edition of Time trumpeted the surprising news that “California defeats all Gaul” as the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay and the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon were the top wines. He described how the judges could not always distinguish California wines from French, and he ended with a classic reaction from Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena: “Not bad for kids from the sticks.” Within days, demand for the winning wines soared in retail shops across America.

Winemakers around the world were inspired, and the French realized California’s potential. “It’s no coincidence the first vintage of Opus One was in 1979,” Spurrier says now, referring to the joint venture in Napa Valley between Bordeaux’s Château Mouton-Rothschild and California’s Robert Mondavi Winery, launched a few years after the tasting. Spurrier, now a consultant editor at Britain’s Decanter magazine, said in an email that the tasting “opened up the wine world.” Before then, “the New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.”

An ‘underdog story’

The Paris Tasting still captures our imagination. Wine enthusiasts enjoy brown-bagging bottles and conducting their own blind tastings. New wine regions pit their products against the world’s best, hoping to show they belong in the ranks of top-quality wine. It’s great marketing, and great fun.

The story also embodies the American dream. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, a Croatian immigrant who fled communism to come to Napa Valley to make wine, crafted the winning chardonnay at Chateau Montelena. Barrett, Montelena’s principal owner, was transitioning from a successful law practice to a second career to be close to the land. About 25 miles to the south, Warren Winiarski, the son of Polish immigrants, had founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars after abandoning a promising future in academia and moving his family west.

Taber told the story of the Paris Tasting and its impact in his 2005 book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine” (Scribner). A highly fictionalized movie, “Bottle Shock,” was released in 2008, with Alan Rickman sneering his way through Napa Valley more like Severus Snape than Steven Spurrier.

Why has this wine tasting captivated us so?

“It’s a wonderful underdog story with a great narrative arc, pitting upstart Americans against centuries of Old World tradition,” says Paula Johnson, curator and project director for food and wine history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her team’s ongoing exhibit, “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000,” includes bottles of the winning wines. The museum will mark the tasting’s 40th anniversary May 16 and 17 at two events, both of which sold out within days of being announced in January.

“People who take it for granted that we have a wide choice of wine today don’t realize what it was like before the Paris Tasting, when France really ruled the world,” Johnson says. “Fine dining back then still meant French, but the undercurrents of change from California with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were already beginning. It was also inspiration for other people across the country who were already making good wine.”

Winiarski, now 87, looks back on the tasting as a “Copernican moment” that changed the way people look at wine. “It’s getting more grand, larger in scope than ever before,” he told me in a recent interview. There may have been a twinkle in his eye, since he has been a leading promoter of Paris Tasting commemorations over the years.

Winiarski sold his winery in 2007 to a partnership of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, based in Washington state, and Italy’s Marchese Antinori. The winery’s new tasting room, opened last year, features a small exhibit about the Paris Tasting. Winiarski still lives in a house overlooking the vineyards and the basalt outcropping known as Stags Leap, and he tends a small vineyard of his own in southern Napa Valley. The tasting “gave an enlarged vision to others who might have sold their fruit short” and settled for making less than world-class wine, Winiarski says.

Bo Barrett, Jim’s son who now runs Chateau Montelena, expressed the same sentiment but with a little more American bravado. “It let us walk on the same playing field and play with the big guys,” he told me in a small kitchen next to Montelena’s tasting room. “We became a meritocracy, with the French no longer considered superior.”

A tasting’s echoes

The Paris Tasting helped make Napa Valley’s reputation, but Spurrier and Gallagher had included wines from the Chalone, David Bruce and Ridge wineries in California’s Central Coast as well. And although Chateau Montelena is in Napa Valley, its winning chardonnay was made primarily with Sonoma County fruit.

On a cool April Sunday, I visited Bacigalupi Vineyards in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, where Pam Bacigalupi showed me the family’s “Paris Tasting Block.” Her in-laws, Charles and Helen, sold Montelena 14 tons of the 40 tons of grapes that made the winning chardonnay. The Bacigalupis, grape growers for 60 years, have been marketing their own wines only since 2011. Framed in their modest tasting room is the original receipt for the 1973 grapes. From an era when labeling laws were less precise, the bottle’s label credited only the Napa and Alexander valleys as sources of the fruit.

“These vines only produce three tons a year today, but we don’t have the heart to rip them out and replant,” Bacigalupi said.

The previous day, I met Mike Grgich at his old home in Yountville to discuss his memories of those early days at Chateau Montelena. The Paris Tasting, he said, convinced winemakers in California and around the world that they could match the French for quality.

“The French always claimed that only French soil could make world-class wine,” he said. “But then California cabernet and chardonnay went to Paris. After that, Australia, Chile and other countries started thinking their soil is as good as French.”

Grgich Hills Estate, the winery he founded in 1977 with siblings Austin Hills and Mary Lee Strebl of the Hills Brothers coffee company, has been a stable partnership for nearly 40 years and now farms 366 acres of vineyards throughout Napa Valley. His daughter, Violet, handles management and sales, while his nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, oversees the vineyards and winemaking.

We sipped an exquisite 2013 Paris Tasting Commemorative Chardonnay, with an image on the label of a younger Grgich wearing his trademark beret. Unlike the victor 40 years ago, this wine’s grapes came from Napa Valley, from the Carneros region. “Sonoma chardonnay has such elegance, while Napa has more power,” he said.

Now 93 and slowed by spinal stenosis, Grgich smiled as he recalled the winning wine.

“The 1973 chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting started with my mother’s bevanda” — wine cut with water, which he drank as a child in Croatia — “then my viticulture studies at the University of Zagreb, followed by my work with Lee Stewart, Christian Brothers, André Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi. Then I arrived at Chateau Montelena. I was fortunate I could absorb the knowledge of others. They had their own knowledge, but I had knowledge of all of them.”

Perhaps his greatest achievement came after the 1976 Paris Tasting. As he spoke, I detected in his voice both a hint of the idealism of that year’s American Bicentennial and an echo of politics today.

“I am very happy that as an immigrant, I found a job for myself and created jobs for 60 others,” he said. “I have had so many miracles in my life, because I had opportunities to have miracles.”

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