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"The best use of bad wine is to drive away poor relations." 

Old French proverb, source unknown.


The Paris Tasting

Winery Insight Featured Article - July 2005 by Timothy O. Rice


Almost thirty years ago, at a small gathering in Paris, the wine world changed.


For decades, the world had known France made the best wine.  There were other places that made good wine, but common wisdom placed France in a special place above the rest.  Individual wineries might occasionally intrude in their circle of excellence, but these exceptions were just that: exceptions.  France was the home of great wine and the standard of excellence.  From their high place, they looked down at the rest of the wine world, and one of the nations they saw far below them was the United States.


Now it must be said that they had good reason for their pride.  France had been producing wine for centuries.  The great estates of Burgundy and Bordeaux were unmatched in the world for consistent quality.  Champagne stood above the sparkling wine districts of the world.  France had been in the forefront of regulations for quality and could also claim to be the leader in the science as well as the skill of winemaking.  The reputation was well-earned, but – as with all such – swelled with time to a level that could not be sustained.


As to the relative position of the United States, the French belief in their superiority was justified at one time.  Before 1840, the country had no real wine industry worth discussing.  In the days before the Civil War, new vineyards near Cincinnati managed to make the world take notice.  Disease wiped them out, but also brought a tidal wave of winemakers from Europe looking to avoid the phylloxera bug.  In the late nineteenth century, the American wine industry took giant strides and by the turning of the century was winning renown.  But in the aftermath of World War I, America began the grand experiment in Prohibition.  When it was over in 1933, for practical purposes, the American wine industry no longer existed.


New wineries started; old ones tried to revive.  But American tastes had changed with the speak-easies of the Roaring Twenties and bootleg gin.  Most wine was now sold cheaply, and often “fortified” with alcohol to compete against whiskey and gin.  A few wineries strove for something better; some succeeded, but they lived in obscurity and struggle.  Yet things changed.  Techniques and skill improved.  Wisdom passed from winemaker to winemaker in time-honored tradition.


Naturally, the new wineries and their adherents claimed their wine was as good as any other and perhaps better.  Naturally, the French winemakers and their supporters laughed at the silly notions of these upstarts.  There were claims and counter-claims, competitive tastings with scores and judgments roundly criticized.  Amid the hoots and catcalls, the strongly held opinions and the hubris of the sides, nothing could be admitted or decided.


Then, one day in June of 1976, an Englishman named Stephen Spurrier, owner of a wine shop and a wine school in Paris, arranged a small tasting of California and French wines.


Due to his connections in the French food and wine industry, Spurrier was able to assemble a team of nine judges.  All were well-known, regarded as experts or authorities in their field.  All were French.  The rules of the tasting were simple: they would taste 10 white and 10 red wines in two groups, grading them according to a pre-arranged system.  The 10 whites would include four French Burgundies against six California Chardonnays.  The 10 reds would include four French Burgundies against six California Cabernet Sauvignons.  All would be tasted “blind”, so that the judges would not know one wine from another as they graded.


The trouble began immediately.  In the tasting of the whites, an American wine won: the 1973 Chateau Montelena from Napa Valley.  Not only that, other American wines took third through fifth places.  Mr. Spurrier, under pressure to move things along and clear the room for a wedding coming in later in the day, let the results be known before the second tasting began.  It is rumored that the judges made a strong effort to identify and downgrade the American wines in the tasting of the reds to make the French wines win.  If so, they failed.  The 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Napa Valley won.


A single journalist was in attendance, an American named George M. Taber, who was allowed to walk about among the judges.  Speaking French, he recorded their comments as they worked – but he had a sheet identifying the wines and so knew, for example, that a judge was tasting a 1973 Batard Montrachet from Burgundy when he said "That is definitely California. It has no nose."  His notes memorialized the failure of the judges to be able to distinguish French wine from Californian.


Taber was one of two reporters in Paris from Time magazine.  His 2000 word story was cut to four paragraphs, but was published as filler in the June 7th issue.  From that humble beginning, it took off.


Today, the famous “Paris Tasting” is regarded as the turning point, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon.  From that point on, it had to be acknowledged that the great California wines were so close to the great French ones that even the French judges could confuse them.  Suddenly, the French superiority seemed so much less.  Suddenly, it was possible to be on their level and compete with them.  From that day to this, the number of wineries in the United States has grown by leaps and bounds, particularly on the West Coast.  Jug wines and “fortified” wines faded as the wineries concentrated on making higher quality wines that sold for more money.


The significance, of course, was not that the Americans were suddenly “better”.  They had been improving all along and the world had finally noticed.  One of the things the world noticed was that there were a lot of places in the world with good climates and soils where the application of skill and technique would produce good wine.  Italy and Spain began to invest in improvements to age-old vineyards and wineries.  New ones sprouted up throughout the world, in Australia and Chile and New Zealand.  The French wine did not suddenly become worse; if anything, it is probably better than it was thirty years ago.  Their competition became much better, competing at a higher level.  All of us who smile and sip those wines benefited.


Isn’t life grand?

 Last modified: August 07, 2007