(CNN) — In a Parisian hotel 45 years ago, some of France’s biggest wine experts came together for a blind tasting.
The finest French wines were up against upstarts from California. At the time, this didn’t even seem like a fair contest — France made the world’s best wines and Napa Valley was not yet on the map — so the result was believed to be obvious.
Instead, the greatest underdog tale in wine history was about to unfold. Californian wines scored big with the judges and won in both the red and white categories, beating legendary chateaux and domaines from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
The only journalist in attendance, George M. Taber of Time magazine, later wrote in his article that “the unthinkable happened,” and in an allusion to Greek mythology called the event “The Judgment of Paris,” and thus it would forever be known.
“It was a complete game changer,” says Mark Andrew, a wine expert and co-founder of wine magazine Noble Rot, “and it catapulted California wine to the top of the fine wine conversation.” Wine had gotten its watershed moment.
A trip to California
UK wine expert Steven Spurrier, right, came up with idea for a blind tasting contest.
The tasting was the brainchild of British wine merchant Steven Spurrier, who passed away in March 2021 aged 79. “He was a legend,” says Andrew, who had known Spurrier for 15 years. “He was an open-minded guy who really knew wine, based on its quality and its intrinsic value rather than reputation.”
In the early 1970s, Spurrier owned a wine shop in Paris and a wine school right next to it, called L’Academie du Vin. Both were aimed primarily at non-French speakers and were located on the Right Bank of the Seine river, where most of the foreign banks and firms were.
Spurrier liked to showcase wines from countries other than France in the shop and at the school — an act of true rebellion in Paris — and thought of a tasting as a way to promote his business.
Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher, an American associate of Spurrier, visited California wineries in 1975 and was impressed with the rising quality of their offerings. She suggested to look into such wines for the tasting and have it take place on the bicentennial of the 1776 American War of Independence. She also encouraged Spurrier to visit California himself, to pick a few worthy candidates.
And so, in early May 1976, Spurrier and his wife Bella took off for San Francisco for a wine tour. The tour was arranged by Napa resident and connoisseur Joanne DePuy, who showed the Spurriers around. “Steven wanted to go to the smaller, boutique wineries,” she tells CNN. “He had a very good palate and he bought the wines he liked, at full price.”
Bottles on a plane
The American wines were brought across with a group of 30 Californian winemakers.
Harold Dorwin/National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution Archives
DePuy played a crucial role in setting up the tasting, because Spurrier realized that carrying two dozen bottles of wine with him on a plane would be difficult, and there was a risk of having them held at customs. Instead, he asked DePuy to take the wine to Paris, since she had a tour of French vineyards lined up for mid-May, with 30 Californian winemakers traveling with her. The bottles could be transported as personal allowance.
“One bottle broke,” she remembers. “Steven arrived to meet me in his customary white suit. We were there waiting for my luggage, and for the cases of wine. I smelled it before I saw it — one of the cases had red on the outside and I said, ‘Oh, my.’ But Steven was very kind. He said, ‘That’s all right, not a problem.’ He had at least two bottles of each wine.”
The tasting, now six months in the making, was scheduled for May 24, 1976 at the Intercontinental Hotel, not far from Spurrier’s shop and school. The nine judges, all French, included Odette Khan, editor of a prestigious wine magazine, and Aubert de Villaine, the director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a Burgundy estate that makes some of the world’s best, and most expensive, wines.
The fateful day
Bottles from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, then largely uknown in Europe, were part of the tasting.
Jacqueline Romano/Getty Images for SOBEWFF®
Spurrier had no intention to cause a stir or to humiliate his French judges. He wanted little more than to create recognition for Californian wines and generate publicity for his school. But he did come up with a way of making things more interesting: he picked the four best white wines from Burgundy and the four best red Bordeaux blends from his cellar to go against the American wines, and covered up all the labels.
“It was only pretty much at the last minute that Steven decided to change the testing from an open one to a blind one. Blind tastings are common now, but at the time, it was a very innovative way to compare and contrast wines,” says Andrew.
Among the French wines Spurrier picked were Batard-Montrachet, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion — the elite of fine wine. The Californian offerings, 12 in total, included Ridge Vineyards, Freemark Abbey, Spring Mountain, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena — all of which were largely unknown in Europe.
The journalist George M. Taber was given a card with the names of the wines that were being served, so he knew exactly what the judges were tasting. He soon realized things were getting interesting when one of the judges tasted a white wine and proclaimed, “This is definitely California. It has no nose,” when he was really tasting the Batard-Montrachet, a Burgundy Chardonnay that is often categorized as one of the world’s best white wines.
The unthinkable was indeed happening.
When Spurrier tallied the scores, it turned out that California had dominated the white wine category, with a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena as the winner, and three American wines in the top five. In the red category, a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars came out on top, narrowly edging out a 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild from Bordeaux.
It was a David versus Goliath outcome, with wines that were much cheaper and younger unexpectedly getting rated higher. The Chateau Montelena retailed at the time for about $6.50 per bottle, a small fraction of the cost of its French rivals; Stag’s Leap had been founded just six years earlier, in 1970, whereas winemaking at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild had been going on for three centuries. Both winners hailed from Napa Valley, which would go on to become one of the world’s premier wine regions.
The French judges were far from impressed with the results. Odette Khan unsuccessfully demanded her scorecard back, according to Taber, so that the world wouldn’t know how she scored the wines, while Aubert de Villaine later described the event as “a kick in the rear for French wine.”
Kids from the sticks
The result of the tasting was seen as a David versus Goliath outcome.
Courtesy Bella Spurrier
Joanne DePuy remembers the moment she heard the news. She was also in France, tasting wine with Californian winemakers. In her group were Jim and Laura Barrett, the owners of Chateau Montelena.
“We were at a winery in Bordeaux, sitting down for lunch, when Jim Barrett was called on the telephone,” she recalls. “I thought surely it must have been one of his children, because no one knew where we were. But after he took the call, Jim came up to me and whispered, ‘Our wine won in Paris.'”
The caller was, in fact, George M. Taber, looking for a quote from Barrett for his report. That quote is now enshrined in the lore of the Judgment of Paris: “Not bad for kids from the sticks,” Barrett said, using an American colloquialism for a remote or rural area.
DePuy was desperate to share the news with the others in the group, but because they were sitting with about 50 French wine merchants, she said nothing instead. “After lunch, we got on the bus and went down a long, treelined lane — which I can still see in my mind. We turned the corner and everybody started screaming and yelling and hugging. It was amazing,” she says.
A seismic moment
Winemaker Jim Barrett described the victory as: “Not bad for kids from the sticks.”
National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution Archives
The tasting changed history for wines of the New World, coming from outside of traditional wine regions such as France, Italy and Spain.
“In 1976, California wine was a baby, in global terms and certainly compared to the great wines of Europe, and the wines of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile were conceptually a very, very new thing for the European drinker,” says Andrew.
The tasting was a seismic moment in the modern history of wine, according to Andrew, because it demonstrated that not only were New World wines worth paying attention to, but that many of the greatest palates in France — in a blind tasting scenario — actually preferred them.
“We still see today that the shelves of independent wine merchants and the wine lists of great restaurants are full of Californian, Australian and South African wines, and we’re entitled to ask the question — would that have happened as quickly and as significantly as it did, were it not for Steven and the tasting that he put on?”
The Judgment of Paris has been replicated many times after 1976, some of these by Spurrier himself, and with remarkably similar results.
In France, the tasting raised more than a few eyebrows and some questions about the process and the wine selection, with most of the Bordeaux producers claiming that their wines were too young to be at their best.
Its significance, however, stands unblemished.
Bottles of Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars like those that won the contest are now part of the collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. And a 2008 film, “Bottle Shock,” tells a heavily fictionalized version of the story, with Alan Rickman as Steve Spurrier.
Spurrier’s wife Bella, who took the only existing photographs of the event, tells CNN that the tasting had a huge impact on the life of her late husband. “He was proud of it, but never imagined at the time the effect it would have. His aim was simply to introduce wines that he thought were wonderful and well made to a wider audience,” she says.
“Every wine had a story, according to him, and this is what he discovered in California. To the world’s great surprise at the time.”