1990s Archive

Wine Journal: The Judgment of Paris Revisited

Originally Published January 1997
The wine tasting that stunned the world.

In the early 1970s Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant, and Patricia Gallagher, his American partner, had a small wine shop in Paris in a cul-de-sac near the Place de la Concorde, where, in an adjacent building, they also gave courses in wine to their enthusiastic customers. Almost inevitably, Spurrier and Gallagher developed a considerable clientele among expatriate Americans. The U.S. Embassy was a block or two away, the substantial offices of IBM were almost next door, and American law firms were scattered all around them. Through word of mouth, their Caves de la Madeleine became a regular stop for California wine producers and others making the rounds of the French wine scene. Often these visitors brought a bottle or two with them, and Spurrier was able to taste what he has described as “some exceptional [California] wines.”

At their shop Spurrier and Gallagher dealt in French wines (except for a few of the most ordinary commercial blends, there were no California wines available in Paris at that time), but they decided to use the excuse of the United States’s bi-centenary to show a selection of California wines to French journalists and others connected with the wine world. They were sure that they would make a good impression on the French and thought they might even surprise them. They hoped, too, that any stories generated in the press might bring in a new client or two.

With their bicentenary plan in mind, Gallagher visited California in the fall of 1975 and Spurrier followed in the spring of 1976, during which time he picked out six Chardonnays and six Cabernet Sauvignons, all of recent vintages, that he thought would give a fair picture of what was going on in California. He needed two bottles of each, and, knowing he might have difficulty bringing two cases of wine through French customs, he arranged for a group of twelve tennis enthusiasts on the point of leaving for a wine and tennis tour of France to carry two bottles each in their hand baggage.

To give the wines a context and ensure they would be judged without prejudice, he decided to offer them for tasting in unidentified, wrapped bottles and to mix in among them a few white Burgundies and red Bordeaux. He knew he would have to choose among the very best of these or risk the suspicion that he and Gallagher had set up the California wines to score off the French. He knew, too, that because he would be showing the wines blind—that is, unmarked—and asking the tasters to rank their preferences, the credentials of those participating would have to be impeccable; otherwise any approving nods toward California might be dismissed as stemming from a lack of familiarity with the niceties of French wines.

The tasting took place at the InterContinental Hotel. The panel members—experienced and of high repute—were all French: Pierre Brejoux, then chief inspector of the National Institute of Appellations of Origin; Aubert de Villaine, part-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti; Michel Dovaz, a wine writer and enologist; Claude Dubois-Millot, from Le Nouveau Guide; Odette Kahn, editor of the influential Revue du Vin de France; Raymond Oliver, the celebrated chef and owner of Le Grand Véfour; Pierre Tari, owner of Château Giscours, a cru classé of the Médoc, and secretary-general of the Syndicat des Grands Crus Classés; Christian Vannèque, head sommelier of Tour d’Argent; and Jean-Claude Vrinat, owner of Taillevent.

The Chardonnays brought by Spurrier’s tennis players from California bore the labels of Spring Mountain ’73, Free-mark Abbey ’72, Chalone ’74, Veedercrest ’72, Château Montelena ’73, and David Bruce ’73. He added to them four white Burgundies: Meursault-Charmes, Domaine Roulot ’73; Beaune Clos des Mouches ’73, from Drouhin; Bâtard-Montrachet ’73, of Ramonet-Prudhon; and Puligny-Montrachet, Premier Cru Les Pucelles ’72, from Domaine Leflaive.

Spurrier’s Cabernet Sauvignons were Clos du Val’s ’72; the ’71s of Mayacamas and of Ridge Vineyards’s Mountain Range; Freemark Abbey’s ’69; Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’s ’73; and Heitz Cellar’s Martha’s Vineyard ’70. I wondered why he had not included wines such as Robert Mondavi’s ’69 Cabernet Sauvignon or the Georges de Latour Private Reserve ’70—both of these wines yardsticks by which other California Caber-net Sauvignons were being measured at the time.

“I simply didn’t get to taste them,” he told me recently, whereas he had already tasted a number of the wines he did select, and the rest had been chosen based on visits to wineries made on the advice of friends.

Nothing was left to chance in his choice of Bordeaux to put alongside the California reds. They were Château Mouton-Rothschild ’70, Château Haut-Brion ’70, Château Montrose ’70, and Château Léoville-Las-Cases ’71. A formidable group of wines.

Members of the jury knew only that some of the wines were French and some from California. Once they had graded the ten white wines—poured from their wrapped bottles—on a scale of twenty points, they did the same with the reds, and a group order of preference was determined. Among the journalists present as spectators was the Paris bureau chief of Time, and in the magazine’s international edition of June 7 he announced the group’s decisions to the world.

Among the white wines, California’s Château Montelena headed the list, followed by the Meursault-Charmes, Chalone, Spring Mountain, Beaune Clos des Mouches, Freemark Abbey, Bâtard-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Veedercrest, and David Bruce. A California wine, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ’73, was first among the reds, too. It was followed, respectively, by the Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Haut-Brion, Château Montrose, Ridge Mountain Range, Château Léoville-Las-Cases, Mayacamas, Clos du Val, Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard, and Freemark Abbey.

In California, growers took the news calmly—“Not bad for kids from the sticks” was the reported response of Château Montelena’s owner, Jim Barrett. But in France, and particularly in Bordeaux, there was consternation and, one might say without exaggeration, a degree of shock. It was not that California’s success diminished in any way the real quality or value of the French wines—they had been used, after all, as the measure by which the others were judged—but the published results challenged the French in a field where they had assumed their superiority to be unassailable.

Subscribe to Gourmet