Potable quotables on the 40th anniversary of the Paris Tasting
American wine aficionados know the Judgment of Paris or Paris Tasting as the transformative tasting held in Paris on May 24, 1976, where 12 California wines—six Chardonnays and six Cabernet Sauvignons—were pitted against the best of France's Burgundy and Bordeaux. The Paris Tasting was organized by an English wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, who owned a small wine shop and school in Paris, along with his American business partner, Patricia Gallagher. Together they enlisted nine well-respected French judges for the blind tasting. Members of the French wine press declined to cover the event, but one American journalist, Time's George Taber, agreed to attend. After results were tallied, surprise turned to shock as two American wines, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, scored first in their respective groups. These results crushed the then widely held belief that only the French could make premium wine and brought significant acclaim to the winning winemakers and wineries and the California, Napa Valley wine region.
May 24 marks the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris and to celebrate, we've pulled some of our favorite quotes from the museum's wine oral histories, archives, and collections to help tell the story and history behind this tremendous moment.
"Wines that gave the most to American morale"
When Croatian native Miljenko "Mike" Grgich arrived in California in the late 1950s, he found a community of winemakers and a spirit of excitement and innovation. Having studied viticulture and enology at the University of Zagreb, he worked for Napa vintners Lee Stewart, André Tchelistcheff, and Robert Mondavi. He joined the Chateau Montelena winery in 1972 and made the 1973 Chardonnay that placed first at the Paris Tasting. When interviewed by museum researchers in 1997, he recalled, "In those days I didn't realize the importance of [the Paris Tasting] . . . I think the Cabernet that Stag's Leap produced and [the] Chardonnay that I produced . . . are wines that gave the most to American morale, American conviction that they can do it."
"The grapes spoke, and it was epiphanal…"
Like Grgich, Warren Winiarski worked at several Napa vineyards before starting his own vineyard and winery under the Stag's Leap Palisades in the Napa Valley. Having tasted wine made by his neighbor, grape grower Nathan Fay, Winiarski knew that the soil's particular mixture of volcanic and alluvial material would give his future wines unique characteristics. In a 1997 interview with museum researchers, Winiarski said, "The grapes spoke and it was epiphanal. The beam of light came down and settled in that glass and it was a revelation. It was beautiful, rendered, the texture, the spiciness . . . everything." Thinking back to the Paris Tasting, he seemed less surprised than Grgich at the triumph of the American wines. "We knew it was good fruit and, of course, we were thinking of the great French examples. We were also thinking of the great beautiful examples of California fruit. . . . It was like getting up on the mountain in order to be struck by lightning. We made the wines as good as we could, [and] we had in mind the great models from both California and France." Winiarski's 1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon placed first among the red wines at the Paris Tasting.
"100 percent in love with wine"
Spurrier first established his wine shop in Paris, Les Caves de la Madeleine, and together with Gallagher founded the L’Académie du Vin as a place for the shop's English-speaking clientele to experience classes and tastings focused on French wines. Both Spurrier and Gallagher saw the U.S. bicentennial as a chance to expose the world to the best of the new American market. Looking back on the tasting's transformative effect on the wine world in George Taber's book Judgment of Paris, Spurrier said, "I am still totally, 100 percent in love with wine, the wine trade, and the people in it. I have been very fortunate indeed, and wine has brought me more than I ever could have imagined."
"The most beautiful grapes I ever saw in my life."
The triumph at the Paris Tasting not only affected the individual wineries, but gave tremendous pride to those who had contributed grapes to the winning wines. Nearly 50% of the grapes used by Mike Grgich to make the winning Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena were grown by Helen Bacigalupi, the matriarch of Bacigalupi Vineyards, located in Sonoma's Russian River Valley. In a 2013 interview with Wine Business, Bacigalupi recounted the moment in summer 1973 when she first showed the vineyard's grapes to winemaker Mike Grgich. "He tasted a grape and then smiled and said, 'Boy, these are the most beautiful grapes I ever saw in my life.'"
"The wine world suffered, screamed, raged…"
The results of the Paris Tasting shocked the wine world, even the judges whose blind reviews of the tasting's red and white wines gave top marks to American wines over the assumed superior French wines. One of the judges, Odette Kahn, an editor for the Revue du Vin de France, was so incensed at Spurrier once he revealed that the American wines had won that she asked to change the results on her ballot. "Never before have I received such an avalanche of letters and telephone calls," she later wrote in the Revue. "The wine world suffered, screamed, raged [at] such a scandalous affair." It should be noted that in her original ballot from the 1976 tasting, Kahn rated the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena wines as the best in their respective category.
"Not bad for kids from the sticks."
When asked for a comment on the results of the Paris Tasting, in which the wine made by Mike Grgich at Chateau Montelena took first place among the white wines, Chateau Montelena CEO Jim Barrett said, "Not bad for kids from the sticks." The Chateau Montelena family tradition continues today, with Jim's son Bo Barrett having taken on the job as Chateau Montelena's winemaker and now CEO after the passing of his father in 2013.
If you want to learn more about the Judgment of Paris, and the history of wine in America, visit the "Wine for the Table" portion of our exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 online or in person here at the museum. On May 16, 2016, the museum held a special American History (After Hours) program to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Paris Tasting. Explore photographs and moments from that evening here as well as video of the discussion that night.
Jessica Carbone is a project associate in the Division of Work and Industry, Food History Project, and is the host of the monthly Cooking Up History program. Stay in touch with all things food, beer, and wine related at the museum by signing up for our food newsletter.