Quelle Horreur!

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On May 24, 1976, nine French experts sat down at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris to taste a flight of wines that included some of the most revered products of their own vineyards along with new, little-known bottles from little-regarded California. What happened in that room changed the world of wine forever. JUDGMENT OF PARIS is the last word on this earthshaking event and its profound ramifications, written by a knowledgeable eyewitness. It’s one of the best wine books I’ve ever read.

The shocking effect of the “Judgment of Paris,” as the event has wryly come to be known, struck like a lightning bolt. It could hardly have been anticipated: such tastings happen all the time. The organizers, wine retailer Steven Spurrier and his colleague Patricia Gallagher, simply put together an amusing way to acknowledge the American bicentennial — and “the role France had played in that historic endeavor” — by introducing French super-palates to some of the interesting wines coming from the New World, both reds and whites. For comparison, Spurrier told the judges, he had also selected some French wines crafted in a similar style. Like many tastings, this one would be conducted “blind,” meaning the judges would not learn the wines’ identities until after they had rated them.

The Paris tasting was a watershed event for two reasons. First, the highest-rated wines, both red and white, were from — spoiler alert, though this is not a book of suspense — California! Second, a correspondent for Time magazine was present, and he sent the news to the world in the following week’s issue. Nobody is better qualified to write about this event, because despite Spurrier and Gallagher’s best efforts, only a single journalist could be roused to attend: our author, George M. Taber. Even Mr. Taber remembers idly brushing off the invitation in his mind: “it seemed almost absurd to compare the best French wines with California unknowns.” But when he saw a judge swirl, sniff and sip from one glass and pronounce, “Ah, back to France!” he double-checked the list in his hand with Gallagher. It was really a Napa Valley Chardonnay! Later, another judge dismissed another white wine: “That is definitely California. It has no nose.” Mr. Taber again had to make sure that the list he held was correct, for this was a 1973 Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, one of the best-regarded white Burgundies on earth. He realized, “Spurrier’s Paris tasting might just be an interesting story after all.”

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don't know.

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don’t know.

This book is wonderful not so much for its account of the event itself — the blow-by-blow description is only twelve pages long — but for helping us laymen understand what came before and after. While it’s perversely thrilling to watch pompous, patronizing worthies brought low (the EXPERTS SPEAK effect), this is really an uplifting, human-sized story featuring the Napa pioneers Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, who was portrayed by Bill Pullman in the underrated film inspired by the white-wine competition, BOTTLE SHOCK. We get to know these quirky, obsessed guys and watch how they manage to craft wines superb enough to stand up to the best France had to offer.

After introducing Spurrier and his little Parisian wine shop, Mr. Taber draws the bigger picture, beginning with a concise history of the wine industry in both France and California (which was awash in everyday wine before Prohibition). It’s hard to imagine this some forty eventful years later, but keep in mind that at the time of the Paris tasting, France ruled the wine world to the exclusion of most others. Fine wine, as opposed to jug or table wine, was considered to be exclusively European: if not French, perhaps Italian or Spanish. That’s where premier wine was made, and nowhere else. To most aficionados, California wine was nothing more exciting than a giant jug of Gallo “Hearty Burgundy.” But out of sight of Old World wine devotees, things were rapidly changing.

The terroir — climate, soil, slope, everything that gives a place its identity — of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the most prized viticultural regions in France, has been producing distinctive wine for centuries. Generations of winemakers — often literal generations as progeny take over the longstanding family business — have learned over time how to exploit their land, coax out the most useful grapes, and deal with the vicissitudes of weather that make each vintage unique. California winemakers couldn’t count on the wisdom that comes with long experience; they had to improvise. But they did have some advantages. Without being tied to rigid tradition, they felt free to experiment with new techniques and technologies. And their growing season of warm days and cool nights, with relatively predictable rainfall, was far less volatile: the range of quality between good harvests and poor ones was thinner than that of their French counterparts. What they were doing was under the radar, which is why the idea of a world-class wine from California was “almost absurd” in 1976. But the visionaries had known for years that this place — the Napa Valley and Sonoma County — seemed just perfect for making fine wine. Now they had to learn how to use it.

A great winemaker is a combination of farmer, chemist, artist and salesman: a practical dreamer. Sometimes it takes more than one person to nail down all these qualities. Mr. Taber repeats the probably apocryphal but famous exchange between Modesto’s Gallo brothers: Ernest is reputed to have said, “I’ll sell all the wine you can make,” to which brother Julio responded, “I’ll make all the wine you can sell.” The runup to the tasting shows the many roads traveled by its American principals, who were devoted to quality, not quantity. Warren Winiarski discovered the conviviality of everyday wine while spending a graduate-school year in Naples. Mike Grgich was a Croatian who grew up in a casual-wine culture. And Jim Barrett had his first taste in law school but graduated to finer wines after his real-estate law practice in Los Angeles flourished. However it happened, each man became enthralled with the idea of producing wine, each inspired by the great growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But they needed each other to put together the total package.

They also needed practical experience, and Mr. Taber details the winding paths that led Winiarski to found Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Barrett to revive Chateau Montelena (Grgich was its chief winemaker), makers of the red and white wines which won the Judgment of Paris. Stints at various established wineries, and the breakthroughs generously shared by other obsessives like Robert Mondavi — a natural-born marketer who became the face of Napa wine — allowed them to collapse the European centuries into mere years. Although Mr. Taber pays the most attention to the two victors, with precise reporting on the making of both individual winning vintages, he also goes into detail on each of the other wines presented at the Judgment. Six California Cabernet Sauvignons were tasted alongside four Bordeaux reds, and six California Chardonnays with four white Burgundies. At last Mr. Taber arrives at the main event, as the unlabeled, pre-decanted bottles are brought in while the judges chat merrily.

When Barrett and Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was announced as the highest scoring white, the reaction of the judges “ranged from shock to horror.” As the reds were poured, Spurrier felt they would not let that happen again. They knew the French reds forward and backward. But, incredibly, Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet won as well. It was incontestable: fine California wines could now rival the finest in the world.

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Actually, it was contestable, and the French judges’ grapes immediately turned sour. Mr. Taber’s report appeared in the June 7, 1976 issue of Time in the “Modern Living” section, a one-column note following a story on a new theme park in Atlanta. But the buried notice seized the wine world instantly, and the French started walking back the results. Mr. Taber summarizes their main objections and even concedes one, that the tasting was mathematically stacked against France by presenting more American wines. But Spurrier hadn’t been thinking of the event as a contest; in fact, he was certain the French wines would score highest. He was simply trying to showcase some interesting bottles from the New World.

Speaking of the New World, ask most winelovers about the significance of the Paris tasting of 1976 and they’ll say it put California wines on the map and forced serious oenophiles to take them seriously. But as Mr. Taber shows, that wasn’t the largest consequence. Winemakers all over the world realized that if they found the right spot, used the right methods and brought the right passion and taste to bear, they could also produce world-class wine. The Judgment of Paris demystified Europe in general and France in particular. It led to the globalization of fine wine. In the book’s longest chapter, Mr. Taber takes a globe-spanning tour three decades later to a few great wineries outside France and Napa/Sonoma. The world’s best Sauvignon Blanc comes from New Zealand. Its best Syrah is made in Australia (in “Strine” it’s “Shiraz”). There’s a fabulous single-vineyard Chardonnay produced in South Africa (now the rest of the world can actually buy it in good conscience), and a real Burgundian is making dazzling Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And so on and on, for these pioneers represent many hundreds more. In wine terms, the “New World” now indicates everywhere but Europe.

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The finest French wines — if one can afford them — can still be mind-blowing, and the great chateaux are a deserved source of national pride. But France’s share of the worldwide wine trade has inexorably slipped in the years since the Judgment while newcomers like Australia and Chile have been on fire: they’re unafraid to target a specific promising market. For example, Yellow Tail is fairly-priced everyday wine specially crafted for the American palate and marketed under a brand name that’s easy to remember; it’s hugely popular, and it doesn’t come from Modesto, but from Down Under. France’s — and now California’s — competition is everywhere these days. Mass marketers like Yellow Tail aside, there has never been a better time to enjoy respectable wine at an affordable price.

My hardcover copy of this book was published in 2005, and I just now got around to it (so many books, so little time…). Click on the jacket art up top, or the book title in the first paragraph, and you’ll link to a revised and updated paperback reprint, about a year later. The further passage of time hasn’t really changed Mr. Taber’s conclusions. The wine industry, like so many others, continues to consolidate. But the Internet and the inevitable dissolution of remaining laws preventing interstate shipping (it’s up to each individual state legislature) are enabling smaller wineries to reach far-off customers without the permission, or the fees, of middleman distributors. Mr. Taber writes clearly and vividly, and assumes you don’t know a thing about wine. By the time you’re finished, he’s given you an excellent idea of how “bottled poetry” is created, and a front-row seat at the thunderous event that changed everything.

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6 Responses to Quelle Horreur!

  1. David Buck says:

    Great review, Tom. I loved the movie, also.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Thanks, David. I read elsewhere that Spurrier and the author were annoyed by some of the movie’s fictionalized details — for example, it’s been a while but I seem to remember the tasting depicted as happening outdoors under a tent — and were trying to start their own production based on this book. Don’t know if anything ever came of it. People should keep in mind, though, that BOTTLE SHOCK is no more a documentary than ZODIAC, APOLLO 13 or SPOTLIGHT.

  2. Tom, this is a fantastic article! I live in Napa Valley and had a bucket list kind of summer here. On Father’s Day I was at Grgich Hills with my wife and kids for a tasting and Mike Grgich came by and spent 20 minutes with us. He talked not only about Paris (he of course made the white wine for Chateau Montelena), but about helping Mondavi win best Cab of California in 1970, and about winning best Chardonnay in a Chicago competition in 1980 with 221 other entrants. Okay, that was good enough, right? I blogged about it. Grgich read it. Then invited my wife and me to his annual 4th of July party where we sat with his wife, George Taber, and Violetta Grgich (his daughter) and her husband and kids. I’m still speechless. Check out our blog and follow us if you like what you see: http://www.topochinesvino.com. The Father’s Day article is the one that chronicles the initial meeting with Grgich.

  3. Lewis perdue says:

    Tom, this is a legendary ounce of writing! Well done!

    And as a Sonoma Valley resident I like to remind folks that most of the Chardonnay grapes in the winning Montelena are from Sonoma County …

    Something i occasionally remind friend Bo Barrett.

    Sadly, in the 27 years I have lived in Sonoma, have not tasted a local Chardonnay that stands up to a really fine premier grand Cru Chablis

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Well, your particular approval really made my day. But to me, the flinty, chalky background taste of great Chablis isn’t even a fair comparison. (Chard is not always Chard.) And I have ever equated Napa and Sonoma in my mind (wines from Sonoma still tend to delight me more), as well as in my piece above. Thank you for introducing me to Eden.

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