A brainchild of the renowned Steven Spurrier, the Judgement of Paris was the David vs Goliath event that changed the world of wine forever.
The late, great Steven Spurrier, a british wine expert and merchant, was one of the most influential figures in the world of wine. In the early 1970’s he owned a Parisian wine shop and next to it opened L’Académie du Vin, the famous wine school. From early on in his career, Steven recognised the merits of international wines and made sure both his shop and school showcased wines from different regions around the world.
In an effort to promote his school, Steven decided to host a tasting in Paris. Believing their wines were severely underrated in Europe, he decided to pit some Californian wines against some established and respected French wines. Set for 1976, the bicentennial of the war of American Independence in 1776, Steven aimed to bring some well-deserved recognition to the American wine industry.
Along with his wife, he embarked on a tour around California in search of candidates. Many of the boutique wineries he tasted at were up-and-coming, virtually unknown on the world stage, and unaware that they would soon be playing a part in revolutionising the world of wine.
On May 24th 1976, the tasting was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris. It was an all-French Panel, and the judges were a diverse range of respected professionals, from sommeliers to winery directors. The categories were split into red and white wines, showcasing wines from both France and USA. At the time, nobody thought the American wines would stand a chance. After all, the French were famous for their culinary mastery and discerning palates.
Steven had selected four of the best white Burgundy wines from his cellar to represent France. At the time, these were some of the world’s most respected Chardonnay wines. For reds, he chose four Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends from iconic Bordeaux châteaux. His Californian wines consisted of six Chardonnays and six Cabernet Sauvignons. Some of the French wineries had centuries of history, whereas many of the American wineries were very much in their youth.
But Steven had a surprise up his sleeve. He made the late decision to do the tasting blind, something rarely done in tastings of the time, meaning the French judges would have no idea which wines were which when they were poured.
Once the blind tasting had concluded and Steven had counted the judges’ scores, the results rocked the world of wine and changed the landscape of wine as we know it today. To the surprise of the judges, the white category was dominated by the Californian wines, with a 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay from Napa Valley as the winner and three American wines in the top five.
But the shockwaves didn’t stop with the white wines. In the red category, the judges were again surprised when it came to light that they had chosen another Napa Valley wine as their victor, a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags’ Leap. It had even beaten a 1970 vintage of the renowned Château Mouton-Rothschild from Bordeaux. In total, two American Cabernet Sauvignons had made it into the top five.
The groundbreaking results were a huge boost to American wineries, catapulting them into the spotlight with a newfound respect. At the end of the day, they had beaten classic French wines in the French capital with a panel of French Judges. Some French critics tried to downplay the results, arguing that their wines were too young to be appreciated. Incredibly, in 2006, the 30th anniversary of the tasting, another blind tasting was repeated with the Californian wines once again taking the crown.
As well as benefiting the American wine industry, the tasting also prompted the start of a great relationship between France and USA, sharing knowledge and tastings to elevate each other’s wines. Just three years after the tasting, the iconic ‘Opus One’ wine was born in Napa Valley, the prolific joint venture of American winemaking royalty Robert Mondavi and Phillipe de Rothschild. California is now on the map as one of the finest winemaking regions in the world, with places like Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley becoming synonymous with quality wine.
The Judgement of Paris really highlighted the value of blind tasting. Now comparative tastings of New vs Old World wines are commonplace, developing regions have a fair format to prove their worth, and wine enthusiasts are forever reminded to keep an eye open for the new kid on the block.