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THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS/NAPA 2020

The Event has been COVID-postponed But Still a Tall Tale worth telling!


For fans of history, theater, and theatrics, as well as wine May 16, 2020 is a date of note. That day at Clos du Val Winery in Napa Valley will feature a recreation of the day Napa Valley, and by extension all of California, became a player in the world of fine wine. The original Main Event, that was expected to be a ripple but turned out to be a tidal wave that still rages, was The Judgement of Paris, that took place on May 24, 1976.

To appreciate the original tasting/judgement, and its monumental effects takes some context, and there are some fascinating wine-history stories along the way, so let’s take our time. Part One I will set the backstory, Part Two covers the original judgement and its immediate aftershocks, and in Part Three the ongoing and future effects.

So let’s fire up the time machine and go back to the late 1800s when California first challenged France as the source of all things exceptional in the world of fine wine. 

California’s wine industry rose on the back of immigrants who brought their love of wine and European grape varieties that to this day make the grand wines we know and love. Production was substantial and these wines competed successfully head-to-head in competitions with France’s best, and California was well on its way to glory and riches. Then 1906 came along and the Achilles heel of the California wine industry came to light. You see although the grapes were mostly grown in Napa, Sonoma, and central California, some of the winemaking, and almost all of the storage was in San Francisco. Yes, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed just about every drop of wine and the vast majority of wineries went bankrupt. And if that wasn’t enough, the surviving wineries were getting back on their feet, along came prohibition, and only a few, that could claim they made on Sacramental Wine, stayed afloat.

Post-prohibition even those had trouble making quality wine for several years, and worse the demand for wine was negligible as Americans has acquired a taste for the bootlegged and moon-shined spirits.

By the 1970s Napa was somewhat back on its feet and again producing quality wine. Enter one Steven Spurrier, who had a wine shop and school in Paris and had made a tasting trip to Napa where he expected the worst but found excellence. 

Being quite the marketer, Spurrier cooked up the original Judgement Day, which indeed turned out to be a shot heard ‘round the world.    

And as the curtain falls on Act One, rest assured act two is when the fun really starts!

2020   The Judgement  Part 2

Part two is a stand-alone story, however if you didn’t get a chance to read Part one, taking a peak of that on The Tahoe Weekly’s website will definitely enrich this story.

The setting is Paris, May 24, 1976, and the wines are here, and the judges, Eight French, One Brit and One American, are here as well. And so the Royal Rumble begins.

To get the true vibe, picture Lions VS. Human’s day at the Roman Coliseum, with the French decidedly being the big cats. Matter of fact the betting line was probably better for the Homo Sapiens in question in ancient Rome.

The sole media attendee from the U.S. was George Taber of Time Magazine, who said everyone had been invited, but expecting a butt-kicking of the Californians, only he accepted. And now, the Contestants! In the Red, White and Blue Corner: AKA The hardest-working wines in Rock N’ Roll Chardonnays: 1973 Chateau Montelena                            1974 Chalone Vineyard             1973 Spring Mountain Vineyard       1972 Freemark Abbey Winery 1972 Veedercrest Vineyards    1973 David Bruce Winery

Cabernet Sauvignons: 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1971 Ridge Monte Bello 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard    1972 Clos du Val Winery 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards    1969 Freemark Abbey Winery

And in the Blue, White and Red Corner: AKA The defending champs! Chardonnays / White Burgundies: 1973 Domaine Roulot Meursault                                     1973 Domaine Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos de Mouches 1973 Domaine Ramonet-Prudhon Batard-Montrachet 1972 Domaine Laflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles

Cabernets Sauvignon / Red Bordeaux Blends: 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild     1970 Chateau Haut-Brion 1970 Chateau Montrose        1971 Chateau Leoville Les Cases

In the interest of space, I will not name all the judges but will highlight the most outrageous, and outraged, of them all.

The White Wine Winner was the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, with Americans also taking spots 3 and 4.

The Red Wine Winner was the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon.

Outraged by the fairness of it all, one Odette Kahn, The editor of La Revue du Vin de France having judged the Americans superior, demanded her ballot back.  

The Charming Ms. Kahn

Suddenly the aforementioned Mr. Faber was glad he came! When his Time Magazine article ran, Sacre Bleu, did the Pooh Pooh ever hit the Ventilateur! In an instant, and with a run-up of only a few decades the yanks were undeniably in the same league with the Chateau and Domaines with a several hundred-year head start.

ven the European wine press, famously heretofore in the pockets of the French wine industry, were forced to give American wines an occasional horn-toot. The wine lists of European restaurants started featuring more than a few California wines, and any objective wine lover anywhere could not be taken seriously if they left U.S.’s best out of their tastings and cellars.

Can’t you just hear America the Beautiful ringing in your ears. Next, Part Trois!

2020  THE JUDGEMENT  Part 3

When we last left our protagonists/heroes, AKA Napa Valley’s Finest, it was 1976 and they had just kicked the collective fannies of the defending wine-champions; Red Bordeaux and White Burgundy.

To review, the event was “The Judgement of Paris, and almost all of the judges were the crème-de-la- crème of French wine experts. The fact that this group of adamant California wine-haters had judged Napa as King in a blind-tasting, was clearly The Shot Heard ‘Round the World. America stood toe-to-toe and scored a decisive TKO. Restaurants, collectors, and even wine critics had to change their tunes, and their reviews, of these revelatory wines.

It was a new dawn on a new day, and a closer to even playing field for not only California wines, but also those from all regions other than France.

You see it was not just the United States that was getting the short end of the stick from the wine reviewers who were the absolute taste-makers of the day, it was all producers outside of France. The why of this is easy to see as the writers, importers/exporters, distributors and restauranteurs were being “incentivized” by French wine producers and promoters to communicate that the only truly great wines were French. This was possible because wines were rarely tasted using scientific blind tasting/testing.  Also, when you look at the actual reviews of the day, you see they were filled with non-specific terms such as class and breeding, and written in a way that inferred that one would be an oaf to not perceive the superiority of Les Vins du France. Any wine critic who dared express an alternative opinion was writing their own termination papers.

The Judgement of Paris did not change that immediately, but it did start a wave that swelled into a Tsunami of objective reviewers, restauranteurs, collectors and most importantly press/publications, that tasted blind and reported those results.

This created an environment that allowed for The Rise of Robert Parker, who shall be given his own feature here soon. For now, the short story is that he refused to be incentivized and he boldly proclaimed his analysis even if he was a lone voice for that position. He also popularized the now-ubiquitous 100-Point rating system, whereas others had point or star systems from 1-5 to 1-20. Those systems created large scoring gaps that allowed for significant wiggle room. 

The 1976 Judgement of Paris is arguably the most important single event in wine history. In addition to bringing American wines to the tables of the world, it transformed the corrupt world of wine reviewing into a reasonably fair system where even a wine from the wrong side of the tracks can get a fair shake. It was, and is indeed truth, justice, and the American Way!

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