Bo Barrett, winemaker and proprietor of boutique Napa Valley winery Chateau Montelena, once explained the significance of 1976’s Judgment of Paris like this: It moved American wine ahead 20 years in a day.
The event — in which California reds and whites, including Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay, bested their French counterparts in a blind tasting with French judges in the French capital — marks its 40th anniversary today. Even as it slouches toward middle age, the Judgment of Paris remains the single most impactful event in American wine.
And yet it came oh so close to not really happening at all. Plus, had the Yankee victors reacted differently, or the circumstances back home been different, it’s unlikely we’d be talking about the judgment 40 years on.
“Not bad for some kids from the sticks.”
The tasting was the brainchild of Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant, consultant and educator in Paris, and his American partner, Patricia Gallagher. It was meant to showcase the newer California wines and wineries that had sprung up in the wake of Robert Mondavi’s eponymous launch in 1966.
Mondavi had blazed a path for U.S. winemakers wanting to work primarily with European varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, rather than the more nondescript grapes U.S. winemaking was so famous for (Gallo’s Pink Chablis, launched in 1965, was probably the most famous American-made wine).
Spurrier and Gallagher originally imagined a mere showcase for the California entrants, not a tasting. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise: Surely the long-hegemonic French would stomp all comers vis-à-vis wine quality. Besides, Spurrier enlisted some of the most influential figures in French food and drink to do the tasting, the exact sort of expert palates sure to detect the assumed inferiorities of California plonk. Better to simply have them taste the American fare on its own terms, rather than compare it with the French.
A week before the event, though, Spurrier realized that only one of his nine assembled tasters — a Bourgogne vintner married to a woman from San Francisco — had any experience with California wines. That would make them all the more dismissive of the arrivistes.
Would the assembled mind tasting the wines blindly? Spurrier asked on the day of the event — Monday, May 24, 1976, at Paris’s InterContinental Hotel.
They would not mind. The tasters, then, became judges.
Point for the Americans.
Another big score came in the presence of a tall, lanky man one day shy of his 34th birthday. He stood, notebook in hand, just beyond the table where Spurrier, Gallagher and the judges sat. He also understood French.
George Taber had been a correspondent since 1973 in the Paris bureau of Time magazine, then the largest newsweekly in the U.S., read by roughly one in five Americans. The Southern California native had been a regular at Spurrier’s wine shop. Taber was among the many journalists Spurrier invited to cover the tasting, though he was the only one who responded in the affirmative — and only largely because he had nothing much else to do that day.
It was Taber who recorded the pivotal moment. Raymond Oliver, a prominent Parisian restaurateur and food writer, exclaimed, in French, “Ah, back to France!” upon sipping a 1972 chardonnay from Napa Valley. Spurrier had armed the bilingual Taber with a rundown of the tasting sequence. Taber realized immediately that Oliver was mistaken. Other judges similarly misplaced their insults and praise.
In the end, a California red and white — a 1972 from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and a 1973 from Chateau Montelena—would win their respective categories, and other California wines in the competition would place well, too. The Americans had bested the French at the winemaking they had so long dominated — in France, no less, with French judges.
Point two for the Americans.
George Taber punched out nearly 2,000 words on the tasting and sent it to Time’s New York headquarters, where editors cut it to 362 words. The piece ran toward the front of the June 7, 1976, edition, sharing a page with a longer article about a new Atlanta theme park and appearing with the headline “The Judgment of Paris.”
Other journalists, both in print and in television, cribbed from Taber’s singular reporting, and soon news of the tasting traveled far and wide. Two things helped it along mightily — one often remembered, one just as often not.
Taber’s news crashed against a rising tide of everything Americana in 1976. It was the nation’s bicentennial year, one cresting toward major celebrations on July 4. The story of the victories of American winemakers over a foreign giant fed into the year’s triumphal narrative. (It didn’t hurt that it was spooned out by a major mainstream publication like Time rather than some niche trade magazine or critics’ newsletter.)
Heck, the Oscar-winning Best Picture for 1976 told a similar tale: that of Rocky Balboa getting a freak shot at the world champ and seizing it to make a name for himself.
The Americans had bested the French at the winemaking they had so long dominated — in France, no less, with French judges.
Often forgotten, though, is that these victorious American winemakers reacted perfectly to the news of their wins. Taber had tracked down Jim Barrett, Chateau Montelena’s now-deceased principal owner and Bo’s father, the day after the tasting.
“What’s your reaction to beating the French at their own game, and in Paris?” Taber asked him over the phone.
Barrett had not known in advance about the tasting. Few did. It was not expected to be monumental. Barrett, a former lawyer, mulled his response. Finally, he said: “Not bad for some kids from the sticks.”
Warren Winiarski, the owner of red-wine-winning Stag’s Leap, simply replied, “That’s nice,” when his wife informed him of the victory. Winiarski made little public comment in the results’ immediate aftermath.
Such understatement, a sort of humble brag without the cloyingness, contrasted sharply with the snooty French. Some of the judges themselves accused Spurrier of rigging the contest. French media largely ignored the results for months. Some in the nation’s wine industry sought refuge in xenophobia to explain the seemingly incomprehensible results. Wasn’t Spurrier English, after all, and Patricia Gallagher American?
It was all rubbish, of course. The Americans had won fair and square. (George Taber’s excellent book The Judgment of Paris expertly dismantles the slanders.) The whiny blustering of the French only added to the impact, and legend, of the tasting.
As did the behavior of the victors.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His latest, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, was a finalist for the 2016 James Beard Award for best beverage book.