It started as a publicity stunt. It created an industry – an industry dominated by small businesses and entrepreneurs. And it revolutionized the wine world, changing forever the quality and cost of the next glass of wine you’ll drink.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the “Judgment of Paris” in which the best French wines were pitted against California wines in a “blind” tasting. Confident that French wines had no competition, the most prestigious wine experts in France agreed to judge. The outcome: top honors went to California wines, both red and white.
The wine world was shocked. And transformed. Worldwide, opportunities opened up for small, entrepreneurial winemakers.
“Half a century ago, (the wine industry in California) was struggling to get by, but the Paris tasting of 1976 changed that forever,” said Gloria Duffy, President and CEO of the Commonwealth Club of California, which is hosting a 40th anniversary celebration of the Judgment of Paris in Woodside, California, September 10. Attendees will have the rare chance to taste wines from most of the California wineries included in the Judgment of Paris.
“The California wine industry then was really struggling,” said David Gates, Senior Vice President of Ridge Vineyards. “There were lots of people really dedicated to making wine, but mostly selling their wines within 50 miles of the winery.”
“The Judgment of Paris broke the myth that great wine could only be made in France,” said Susan Doyle, General Manager and Technical Director of Spring Mountain Vineyard, who will be pouring a 1979 and 2001 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon at the Commonwealth Club event. “It put Napa Valley in the limelight where it remains as one of the world’s great wine regions.”
“Other winemakers, all over the world benefitted from the event,” said Gates, even if they weren’t in the test. Ridge Vineyards itself is not in Napa, but located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.
Today, the wine industry is dominated by small businesses, whether wineries themselves or the ecosystem that serves wineries and wine making. Every state of the union has a winery, and 13 states have more than 100. As of 2015, there were 8,990 wineries in the US, overwhelmingly small producers. (Wines & Vines).
The impact was felt worldwide. “It was a turning point for wine producers everywhere as they realized they, too, could make extraordinary wines that could compete on the world stage,” said Marcus Notaro, winemaker of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
“When you grow grapes and make wine, you put your heart & soul in it,” said Gates, explaining one reason small wineries continue to increase. “It feeds your soul if you’re an entrepreneur.”
In fact, a small business owner and his employee were responsible for making all this happen.
Steven Spurrier owned a small, struggling wine shop in Paris. His employee, Californian Patricia Gallagher suggested he carry a number of wines from the nascent California wine industry. Being British, Spurrier wasn’t exactly accepted by the insular French wine world. He figured the Bicentennial of the American Revolution – 1976 – was a good “hook” to leverage publicity for his store.
The movie “Bottle Shock” loosely based on the book “The Judgment of Paris,” by George M. Taber, provides an entertaining if not always accurate portrayal of the ensuing French/California showdown.
It was such a seminal event that bottles of the first-place red and white wines (1973 Stag’s Leap S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon and 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay) are now in the Smithsonian Institution. “It’s thrilling and a great honor,” said Stag’s Leap Notaro about having a bottle of theirs included as one of the “101 Objects that Made America.”
Long after the result, French winemakers still claimed French wines were superior, arguing California wines would not “age” well, improve in the bottle over time. So in 2006, another blind tasting was held of the original vintages. The result? California wines won again, with Ridge Monte Bello placing first – both the original 1971 and a newer 2000 vintage taking first in a re-enactment (the 2000 will be poured at the Commonwealth Club event).
“We wanted to celebrate this event that has become synonymous with the renaissance of the wine industry and has brought so much prosperity and tourism to our area,” said Duffy.
Participating Wineries in the Commonwealth Club event:
- Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
- Ridge Vineyards
- Chateau Montelena Winery
- Veedercrest Estates
- Spring Mountain Vineyard
- Chalone Vineyard
- Freemark Abbey
- Domaine Chandon – Sparkling wine, not a participant in the 1976 event
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2016
This article originally ran in USA Today on August 31, 2016