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Tasted 30 years later: They're alive!

A rematch of the historic 1976 Paris event proves California reds age gracefully, as they topple French classics.

May 31, 2006|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

Napa — ON a spring afternoon in 1976, Stephen Spurrier, the English owner of a Parisian wine shop, and his partner, wine educator Patricia Gallagher (now known as Gastaud-Gallagher), staged an informal wine tasting in Paris for French wine experts in which upstart California wineries were pitted against the great domaines and chateaux of France. In a stunning turn of events, the California wines fetched the highest scores, besting their famous French counterparts. The tasting became known as the Judgment of Paris, and sent shock waves throughout the wine world.

Last week, to commemorate the event, wine critics from England, the U.S. and France gathered in panels chaired by Spurrier at the headquarters of London wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd, and by Gastaud-Gallagher at Copia (the American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts) in Napa to taste those same red wines from the early '70s and find out which, if any, held up.

Neither Spurrier nor Gastaud-Gallagher expected the attention -- or in the case of France, the derision -- that the original event generated. And when it came to the reenactment, Gastaud-Gallagher wasn't certain that the wines, some now 37 years old, would show well. "I was thinking, 'Will this be a celebration or a bitter moment?' " she said. "But when we pulled the corks, we found the wines to be very much alive, and thought, 'Yes, this will be interesting, there may be surprises.' "

And for the second time, California wines recorded a stunning upset: Ridge Vineyards' Monte Bello 1971 Cabernet took top honors in both cities, and the top red wine from the 1976 tasting, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, took second place overall.

In fact, the judges' top five wines were from California, prevailing over some of Bordeaux's most famous, and famously long-lived wines, including Chateau Latour, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Montrose, and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.

In doing so, California proved that not only did its wines deserve the place they secured on the world stage in 1976; they had the longevity to stay there.

"It's absolutely wonderful that California wines have shown that they can age as well as Bordeaux wines," said Spurrier by speakerphone to the crowd in Napa. He may have been as surprised as anyone.

Though the reenactment was meant to commemorate a watershed moment in U.S. wine history, to many in the wine world the results last week seemed almost as shocking as those in 1976.

Count me among the surprised. As a nonvoting critic I was invited to blind-taste the 10 original red wines, from vintages as "young" as 1973 and as old as 1969. Like most, I was expecting the Bordeaux wines to prevail. The California wines were supposed to fade.

At last week's tasting, each panel consisted of nine judges and represented some of the world's most respected critics, sommeliers and wine professionals, including Stephen Brook, Andrea Immer-Robinson, M.S., Paul Roberts, M.S., Christian Vanneque and Jean-Michel Valette, M.W., in Napa; and Jancis Robinson, M.W., Jasper Morris, M.W., Hugh Johnson, and Michael Broadbent, M.W., in London.

It's somewhat remarkable that the date is commemorated at all, as the original tasting wasn't meant to be much more than a little fun. In 1976, to celebrate the American bicentennial, Spurrier and Gallagher decided to throw a blind tasting of French and American wines. They invited nine esteemed French wine experts, and Time magazine reporter George Taber was there. Taber was allowed to wander among the tables, where the judges were informally chatting with each other; at one point, Taber began to notice that they were mistaking the California wines for French -- and he realized there might be a story.

Millions read about California's triumph in Taber's article in Time two weeks later, and it is hard to overstate its impact. Until that day in 1976, French wines were considered the greatest in the world, and no one thought to question that hegemony. But nothing would be the same after the Judgment of Paris.

"The day after the Paris tasting," says Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, whose 1973 Cabernet took top honors that year, "all that changed. We saw that great wine could be made in many countries."

It wasn't supposed to go this way. "What I was expecting was the downfall of California," said Vanneque, the only judge in Napa who had been present at the original event. "We told ourselves [in 1976] that yes, the California wines won because they were more mature, they were too open, and they couldn't last. Today's tasting showed that that was not true; the California wines aged gracefully. They won also the test of time."

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