The Tasting Heard ‘Round the World

Robert Owen-Wahl

Don’t get too upset about my mixing the formerly completely separate senses of taste and hearing. There’s just no other way to express what happened on May 24, 1976.

You see, the world of adult beverages was not always like what we enjoy today. Half a century ago, proper wine snobs would never touch anything that was not grown in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal or Germany. Wines from the United States, any of the 50, were only fit for local consumption by people who did not know any better. The very idea of serving a wine from California or New York was never considered in polite circles.

New Orleans was never keen on California wines, preferring instead wines from our ancestors’ lands, the wine our fathers and grandfathers drank.

In the '60s and '70s, right under our noses (assuming our noses were in California), fine expressions of European grapes were being harvested. Wineries were built that were state of the art – relying on gravity to move the wine, not mechanical pumps. Farmers were learning about their land and what vines would work. Harvests were done at the proper time, often at night, to keep the fruit cool and not allow early and unchecked fermentation to take place.

But nobody cared and no one outside of the West Coast was paying attention. Why worry about some second-rate beverage when grand and proven wines from the Old World were available in every restaurant and on every retail shelf?

Enter into the picture, in 1975, a young Brit, a very nice chap. He was proprietor of a wine shop in Paris, and thanks to his English heritage, the French were not impressed. He had to prove to them he was English only by an accident of geography at birth. He was, in his heart and sensibilities, French. But he could not earn neighbors’ attention. Another side of the coin is that he was on his way to being very broke. No Gallic patronage in a Paris store translated to possible bankruptcy.

So he hatched a plan. Seems the wine press was paying bits of attention to wines being made in a faraway American place, Napa, California. The rest of the world was not even giving the wines a try. The thinking went that the wines can’t be that great, novelties really. The Parisian merchant thought why not bring a few over, ask some respected and finely-tuned French palates to taste the American wines alongside the great French wines, and then the proprietor of the dying wine shop will be perceived as a Champion of France. Liberté, Ėgalité, Fraternité, indeed. Another chorus of La Marseillaise, s’il vous plaȋt.

Steven Spurrier made his way to dusty Napa Valley, California to find wines for his competition. He already knew the French ones he wanted. And he at least had to make an effort to have good wines so the whole project did not appear to be a “set-up.” There would be both reds and whites, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, the world pace setters of the French wine industry.   

Critics were gathered, wines were presented and the game was afoot. The names of the wines were hidden from the judges, which in wine parlance is known as a blind tasting. Going about the project in this fashion assures fairness and no one is influenced by what they think they are supposed to like. Rather what is in the glass would be the point of concentration.

After tasting the white wines, the panel moved on to the reds. Ten wines on each side of the color spectrum were in the mix, six from California and four from France. The French whites were from Burgundy; the reds from Bordeaux. All wines were current releases, dating from 1969 through 1974.

Votes were cast, counted, and results announced. An assessment of the score sheets put Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars from Napa as the top scoring red wine. Chateau Montelena, also from Napa Valley, was the best scoring white. Within each tasting category, the rest of the results were mixed but the damage to the reputation of French wines was done.

The judges were astonished. At least one, Odette Kahn, demanded that her ballot be returned to her and then decried the methodology of the entire affair. I believe the term “sore loser” could be aptly applied to this lady.

The competition was so widely ignored by everyone that only one reporter from the media, George Taber of Time Magazine, who was really just passing time hoping to score some free wine, was present. He eventually submitted a small article to his publication, which when published was buried in the back of the magazine.

But word of the competition and the outcome was not to be ignored. Merchants in America were clamoring for the wines from Napa and Sonoma.

Subsequent competitions staged in San Francisco (1978), the French Culinary Institute (1986), and by the trade publication, Wine Spectator (1986) all came to similar outcomes. American wines were at the top of the heap in every case.

Consumers took notice of these developments. Today, American wines are available throughout the world. Okay, not so much in France, but everywhere else, they have a place at and on the table.

Steven Spurrier’s wine shop in Paris? It eventually closed very soon after the tasting. Today, Spurrier is one of the most respected authorities on wine in the world. He returned to his native England and found his role in the scheme of things, as a commentator, a writer, and a judge.

The Judgement at Paris, as the affair came to be known, has become the separating point of time not just in the wine world but in the appreciation and evaluation of products in a wide range of offerings from every corner of the globe.

May 24, 1976, forty years ago this upcoming week, still resonates.

 

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Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed at www.wgso.com. Also check out Last Call, Tim’s photo feature every month in New Orleans Magazine.

   

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