The year in which Californian wine became known worldwide

Let's go back to the mid-1970s. Back then, France was still the centre of the wine world and the rest of the world hardly mattered. Overseas was non-existent and in Europe, apart from Madeira, Sherry and Port, there were at most German Auslese wines. Italy and the Iberian Peninsula hardly played a role, apart from a few iconic wineries. Today, this is hardly imaginable. But the change from then to now began with the event in Paris, which celebrates its 48th anniversary this year. Although the journalist George M. Taber was only able to write a marginal note on the penultimate page of Time magazine about the event, which later became legendary, this was enough to attract enormous attention. The tasting was an initial spark for Californian viticulture and subsequently for the entire overseas wine industry. It became known as the Judgment of Paris.

The latest judgement for top French winemakers

The Judgment of Paris has often been written and spoken about. The wine tasting organised by Steven Spurrier in Paris in 1976 has become immensely important. It was originally intended as an entertaining event, primarily to give Spurrier's business and wine school some attention in the Parisian press. But this tasting, attended by some of France's most renowned tasters and a single journalist from Time magazine, George M. Taber, turned into a unique event in the wine world. To summarise briefly: Californian Chardonnays were tasted against the best Burgundies and Californian Cabernet Sauvignons against the Cabernet-heavy Grand Crus of the Médoc. Nobody, not even the organiser Steven Spurrier, had expected Californian wines to take first place in both categories. For French tasters such as Odette Kahn, the editor of the Revue du Vin de France, or Aubert de Villaine, the co-owner of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, this was an affront. The French press later tried to play down the event and Steven Spurrier was banned from many wineries - even though he was actually a respected distributor of French wines and had nothing to do with Californian wines.

Californian wines put Grand Cru in the shade

The red wine tasting was won by the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon from winemaker Warren Winiarski. Winiarski, who came from the Polish community of Chicago, was originally a university lecturer and had become enthusiastic about wine during a study visit to Italy. He and his wife wanted to escape the grey city and moved to California in the mid-1960s with almost nothing to become winemakers. He became an assistant to André Tchelistcheff, who also had Eastern European roots, as did Mike Grgich, who had made the Chardonnay that won the Judgment of Paris for white wines. After his apprenticeship, Winiarski looked for a suitable piece of land, found it in the Stag's Leap District, found investors and founded his winery in 1970. He planted the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the autumn of 1970, harvested the first grapes in 1973 and in 1976 he beat the 1970 and 1971 growths from Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Léoville Las Cases and Montrose with this wine.

There can be little doubt that such a tasting is a snapshot and has only limited informative value, even if the result is remarkable. But in this case, things are different. Because at the 30th Anniversary Tasting, a kind of re-enactment also organised by Steven Spurrier and his former assistant Pat Gallagher on both sides of the Atlantic, the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon came second, just behind the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello. Okay, even if France still considered itself to be the centre of the wine world at the time, it became clear at the Judgment of Paris at the latest, and later throughout the entire wine scene, that the 1970s were no longer the best time for French wine. It had rested on its laurels for too long and invested too little for too long. In this respect, the event was also a wake-up call for French winegrowers, who, having licked their wounds, took it as an opportunity to innovate. In this respect, both sides of the wine world have benefited. Land prices in the Napa Valley, where the few Californian wineries at the time were mainly located, skyrocketed after the Time article and multiplied within a few days. The wine boom in California had begun.

The book on the event is by George Taber and is called "Judgment of Paris". It is worth reading because it describes the entire Californian winegrowing industry at the time, including its history. There is also an amusing popcorn film about it. It's called "Bottleshock".

Guest article by Christoph Raffelt

Californian wines

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