This July 4th, no matter if you’re enjoying a cabernet from Napa, a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand or a pinotage from South Africa, it’s in great part due to the Judgment of Paris.
The historic blind tasting, which occurred in, you guessed it, Paris during the spring of 1976, pitted unheralded California vineyards against some of France’s most famous houses.
In a Hollywood-like twist, two of the underdog American wines were able to take top honors. (The winning bottles, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, are even now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.)
In retrospect, the moment seems loaded with importance, but it was actually a fairly modest contest with perhaps 20 people in attendance—of which almost half were judges.
And there was just one journalist, George Taber from Time, who covered the tasting. “Better to be lucky than smart,” jokes Taber, who wrote a best-selling book on the experience, called the Judgment of Paris. “And I was lucky to be there.”
His story, which in our current food and drink obsessed-world would be front-page news, wasn’t even the lead piece in Time’s Living Section. Taber’s account of the tasting followed a much longer article about, if you can believe it, a new theme park that had just opened in Atlanta.
“The shocking thing about the original story in Time Magazine was that it was four paragraphs long,” says Taber. But amazingly enough it was the “first time anybody in the world heard about it.”
You may be asking yourself what’s the big deal? Well, to set the stage in the 1970s if you walked into a liquor store or perused a restaurant’s menu your options would be fairly limited to wines from France.
If you were lucky there might be a few bottles from Italy or Spain or possibly Germany. Given the overwhelming selection of even a run of the mill wine shop today it seems hard to believe that a drinker’s options were ever so limited. But “France ruled the world in 1976,” reminds Taber.
How about the now ubiquitous bottlings from Napa and Sonoma? Taber says at the time most stores might have carried just a few choices but that was it. “There was no demand for them,” he admits. The problem dates back to Prohibition, which, of course, prohibited the commercial sale of wine to individuals.
“The wine industry in the United States was absolutely clobbered by Prohibition,” says Taber. “When Prohibition was over American habits had completely changed.”
Before the legislation went into effect, dry wines were quite popular in the country. After our failed experiment with temperance only sweet and high-alcohol wines (what Taber calls “wino wines”) were available. As a result, “it took a long time for Americans to come back to wine.”
The victory at the Judgment of Paris “put a stamp of approval on California wines.” While its effect on America might now seem inevitable, the results were, surprisingly, felt around the globe.
“It awakened the wine makers of the world,” says Taber. It also busted the myth that only good wine could be made in France.
Four decades later, store shelves are practically groaning under the weight of all the California cabs and chardonnays, and that’s not to mention all the other states producing wine. In fact, last year, US wine exports set an all-time record in terms of winery revenue, which totaled $1.61 billion. And amazingly, the top buyer of American wines by far was the European Union.
“I think we’re living in a golden age of wine and it all started with that tasting,” says Taber. “Never have so much great wine been made in so many countries.”