The Day California Wines Came of Age


By Thane Peterson Sometimes a seemingly inconsequential event can take on huge significance in a nation's commercial and cultural life. We're coming up on the 25th anniversary of one such event -- a wine tasting that took place in Paris on May 24, 1976. Long since forgotten by most people, the occasion is being commemorated in Napa Valley as a signal event in the development of California's wine industry. A celebratory dinner in Yountville later this month is expected to attract 1,000 wine industry luminaries.

Why all the fuss? The long-ago tasting marked the first time California winemakers realized they were capable of making wines of equal, or of even better, quality than the French.

Few expected much from the 1976 Paris tasting. Organized by wine merchant Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who was then only 34 and running a wine school in Paris, it was aimed mainly at capitalizing on the hoopla over the U.S. Bicentennial celebration. The idea was to assemble some of France's greatest experts at Paris' Intercontinental Hotel one afternoon and do a blind tasting of French and California red and white wines.

BAD RIGGING. Spurrier put the event together in such a rush that there wasn't time to have the California wines shipped through customs. He had to get a group of Californians coming over on a tour to smuggle the bottles into France in their luggage. No one, least of all Spurrier, whose business depended on the goodwill of the French wine industry, expected the California wines to win. "I thought I had it rigged for the French wines to win," admits Spurrier, who now lives in London, where he consults and writes for Decanter magazine.

What happened next is the stuff of legend in California wine country. The first tasting was of white wines, with four California Chardonnays pitted against six white Burgundies from France. The jury of nine tasters included the creme de la crème of France's oenophiles, among them Pierre Tari, secretary general of the Association des Grands Crus Classes, and Raymond Olivier, the dean of French culinary writers.

Only one of the haughty French judges had ever even seriously tasted California wines before, Spurrier says, yet the California white wines took three of the top four spots in the blind tasting, with a 1973 Chateau Montelena beating out a 1973 Meursault-Charmes Burgundy for the top rating. A 1974 Roulot Chalone Vineyard Chardonnay from California took third, followed by a 1973 Spring Mountains Vineyard Chardonnay, also from California. A 1973 Batard-Montrachet, which had been classed by the famous wine expert Alexis Lichine as one of the "greatest of all white burgundies," came in a distant seventh.

ALARMED JUDGES. Then came the crucial tasting of the reds, which in wine circles are far more important and prestigious than whites. This time, four Grand Cru Bordeaux squared off against six California Cabernets. Desperately hoping the French would win this round, Spurrier admits he informed the judges that a California white had won the first tasting, rather than wait until the end to announce the results as he should have. The alarmed judges did everything they could to segment what they thought were the California reds and make sure they didn't win.

Even so, a 1973 Cabernet from California's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars took the top spot. French wines took the next three -- a 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild ranked No. 2, followed by 1970 offerings from Chateau Montrose and Chateau Haut-Brion. A 1971 Ridge Montebello Vineyard Cabernet from California came in fifth.

The tasting might have been quickly forgotten. The French certainly weren't going to publicize it. But Spurrier had invited a single journalist, George Taber, a Paris correspondent with Time magazine, who wrote a short article about the event under the headline, "The Judgement of Paris." (Taber is now researching a book on the tasting.)

"SEMINAL EVENT." The poobahs of French wine were so outraged they banned Spurrier from the nation's prestige wine-tasting tour for a year as punishment for the damage he had done to their image. And when the news hit the U.S., it had an electrifying effect. "It was a seminal event," says Vic Motto, a wine consultant based in Napa Valley. "I cite it every time I speak about the growth of the California wine industry." Adds Ronn Wiegand, chief wine officer at the online wine merchant eVineyard.com: "The French monopoly [on fine wines] was crushed permanently."

Until then, the California wine industry was dominated by cheap jug wines, with only a few lonely pioneers struggling to craft higher quality products. Even most Americans regarded European wines as far superior, and the better California wines had trouble even getting distribution beyond the West Coast. "You had to pound on distributors' doors to get your wine tasted," says Bo Barrett, Chateau Montelena's winemaker. "Once they tasted it, the distributors would give you kind of half compliments like, 'This isn't bad-for a California wine.'"

The Paris tasting almost instantaneously gave California's boutique wineries credibility, recalls Warren Winiarski, head of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. "Here we had a visible endorsement from [French wine] authorities. People were willing to listen who wouldn't listen before. We had people calling us to ask where they could get our wines, both from the trade and among consumers."

LONG-TERM RIPPLES. Many experts now view the Paris tasting as the key event in the transformation of the California wine industry. Between 1980 and 1990, consultant Motto notes, the number of California wineries tripled, to about 900, as hundreds of ambitious entrepreneurs moved in, bought land and planted vineyards with an eye toward making world-class wines. The economic benefits for the state have been enormous. Even as jug wines have declined in importance, California's annual production of wine has doubled since 1976, to 157 million cases this year, estimates Jon Fredrikson, a Woodside (Calif.) wine consultant.

But, as the quality and price of California's wines has climbed, the value of the wine at the producer level has soared more than sevenfold in the same period, to $6.8 billion this year, he estimates. The retail value is roughly double that amount, or about $14 billion this year.

On top of that, Golden State wineries have become a major tourist draw. Motto's consultancy estimates that 10 million visitors flock to California wine country annually, with 27% of all tourists to San Francisco now also taking a wine tour. That, in turn, has created a market that supports some of the nation's best restaurants and small hotels.

"CLEARLY BETTER"? "When I moved here 43 years ago, there were about 1,000 tourists coming per year, and no good restaurants and no good hotels," recalls Mike Grgich, who was Chateau Montelena's winemaker back in 1976. The tasting transformed his life as well. With his wine dubbed one of the best in the world, he soon got backing to start his own winery, Grgich Hills Cellar in Rutherford. "My life is divided into two parts --before the Paris tasting and after," he says.

The tasting, nonetheless, did nothing to dent the French belief that their wines are superior to all others. "With age, French wines are clearly better," sniffs Jean Michel Deluc, head sommelier at ChateauOnline.com, the Paris-based Internet wine merchant, and one of only about 100 Master Sommeliers in France. "There's a tight competition until the wines are 10 to 15 years old, but then the French wines take the lead."

To this day, California wines don't do well in France. "To sell wine in France, you have to combat not only the French competition but French chauvinism," Deluc admits.

WINES WORLDWIDE. Still, even many American wine experts agree with Deluc's assessment that the best French wines are the best in existence. Wiegand, one of only three people in the world who has earned the twin titles of Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, contends that no California wine approaches the refinement and complexity of, say, a legendary 1945 Chateau Latour. "Of the greatest Cabernet- or Merlot-based wines in the world, the French in my opinion have the top 10 out of 10," he says. "However, once you remove the top 0.5% of wines, California, Australia and Chile come roaring up."

Australia and Chile? Yep. Australian winemakers now show every sign of doing to the Americans exactly what they did to the French a quarter century ago. Wiegand notes that in Cabernet tastings these days, Australian wines often best all comers, including the Americans and the French. Indeed, the main significance of the famed Paris tasting isn't so much what it did for California as the way it created opportunity for fine wine production in warm and sunny areas all over the world.

All a wine lover anywhere can say about that is "tant mieux" -- which is French for, "so much the better." Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online


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