THE JUDGMENT OF PARIS -- CHEERS, AMERICA!

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        For people drinking fermented grape juice, wine connoisseurs sure put on airs.  Galileo thought wine contained pure light.  Robert Louis Stevenson called wine “bottled poetry.”  But no one ever poured more vintage smugness into a Bordeaux than (ahem!) those French.

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        France taught the world that wine is haute culture. A fine wine should have “legs.” It must have “body.”  And don't forget a  price tag which, if you have to ask. . .  

     But face facts, wine lovers.  If not for the French we’d all be swigging Thunderbird and pretending to like it.  So when a British wine merchant, living in Paris, announced a blind test of wines — French vs. Californian — almost no one came. "Everybody turned the invitation down,” recalled TIME’s George Taber.  “I turned it down the first time.  Everybody knows that French wines are going to win, so why waste a day?”

        Oh, but it was 1976, that blah Bi-centennial year when all things American seemed boring or bleak.  The Great American Hangover, aka “The 70s,” gripped a nation reeling from Vietnam, Watergate, and the popularity of TV’s “The Waltons.”  America needed a boost so why not take on those French?

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        The idea came from American Patricia Gallagher. In 1975, on vacation from her job at a Paris wine shop, Gallagher toured the Napa Valley, then home to most of America’s 300 wineries.  Back in those sober days, you could spend a pleasant Saturday going from winery to winery.  Parking was no problem, and the swirling and sipping were FREE!  Along with the generosity, Gallagher was impressed with the body, the legs, the pure light of California wines.

        Back in Paris, she suggested her boss try a test.  Stephen Spurrier agreed.  “I was an Englishman in Paris," Spurrier recalled.  "I was already a square peg in a round hole.  And these were very, very good wines.  So why don’t we do something about it?"  

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        Only six months before, a blind test in Manhattan had pitted French wines against that swill from California.  California won.  The French pouted.   C’est impossible!  The judges, the judges!  Tout Americain!  But this new test would be in Paris.  With judges so crusty, so French they seemed to be human croissants.  Spurrier invited the press but only TIME showed up.  Still, the table was set.

        Whites first.  TIME’s George Taber described the scene: “As they swirled, sniffed, sipped and spat, some judges were instantly able to separate an imported upstart from an aristocrat. More often, the panel was confused.  ‘Ah, back to France!’ exclaimed one judge after sipping a 1972 Chardonnay from the Napa Valley.”  

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        Another judge, sipping a French white, sneered, ‘That is definitely California. It has no nose.”  Other comments:

        “This is nervous and agreeable.”

        “A good nose but not too much in the mouth.”

        Each judge rated each white from 1-20.  Spurrier collected the scores and averaged them.  The winner?

        Chateau Montelena — a Chardonnay from California. Second place went to a French white but third, fourth, and sixth were from that rogue region called Napa.

        The judges, including Parisian sommeliers and the editor of France’s top wine magazine, tried to contain their shock.  C’est absurde. . .   Allors, les rouges?  Again, the swirling, the sipping, the spitting, the scores.

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        First place — Stag’s Leap — Napa Valley.  The French took the next four places but the damage was done.  One judge demanded the return of her scorecard, lest it be known she ranked Napa Valley's reds first and second.  Another called the test “a kick in the pants for French wine.”  

        But the kick came in slow motion.  For three months, no French paper mentioned the test. Finally, Le Figaro asked, "Did the war of the cru take place?"  Such “laughable” results, the paper said, "cannot be taken seriously.”

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        Meanwhile in the US, the results sent champagne corks flying.  TIME coined a name that stuck — “The Judgment of Paris.”  Other papers picked up the story.  Few recognized the winning entries, each being in small production and costing six bucks a bottle ($25 today).  But the Judgment of Paris changed the wine industry.

        “It opened up the doors not only to Napa but other regions in the world,” said Ted Baseler, current co-owner of Stag’s Leap. “That helped other people say ‘Gee, we can too,’ whether it was in New Zealand, Australia, Oregon, Washington, Chile.”  

        In the decades since, citing statistics or subjectivity, some have doubted the Judgment.  Yet anniversary tests in 1986 and 2006 met the acid test. Each time, California wines beat the French.

        Today, bottles of Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena sit in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.  Given that each winery’s current vintage now costs $50-300 a bottle, the museum is probably the only place you’ll see these labels.

        But America now has 3,000 wineries.  And the judgment of this reporter is that, although American wines rival the French, I’d rather swirl and sip in Paris.  The Napa Valley is a zoo these days.

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Bruce WatsonComment