It was the tasting that revolutionised the world of wine. In May 1976, the crème de la crème of French wine influencers arrived confidently at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris, ready to blind test the best of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from France against some little-known wine producers of the same grapes in California.
The result was to be a foregone conclusion, so everyone thought. So much so, only one journalist turned up – George Taber from Time magazine. Little did Taber know, he was about to document the most significant news story ever written about wine, known as ‘The Judgement of Paris’.
It all began with an Englishman, Stephen Spurrier who owned a quaint wine shop in Paris that carried only French wines (of course). Spurrier, prompted by one of his American assistants, Patricia Gallagher, and hearing through the grape vine of the growing quality of Californian wine, travelled to the US with the intention of setting up a competition between the wines from the region and the wines of France.
Spurrier brought back to Paris with him a flurry of various Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays from the Golden State, in anticipation of the competition. His next move was to draft nine of the most respected names in French gastronomy and wine for judging the contest.
On May 24, 1976, some of the top sommeliers of France, the head of a well-respected vineyard, and Odette Kahn – the highly influential editor of Revue du Vin de France (The French Wine Review) – took their place in this French-only judging panel. Alongside Stephen Spurrier, they blindly assessed (not seeing the label of the wine), and rated out of 20 points for each bottle, the best of the best from both France and California.
As the sole journalist, George Taber had access to the list of wines that were to be tasted, and in what order. Taber famously mentions at one point Raymond Oliver, the chef, and owner of one of Paris’s great restaurants, lifts one of his tasting glasses up and exclaims “Ah, back to France!” Unbeknownst, it was Californian Chardonnay in his glass.
Oliver’s embarrassment would get worse as the final scores were calculated between the judges. Shock and disbelief scoured the tasting room. Chateau Montelena with their 1973 Chardonnay from Napa Valley won the white round comprehensively, putting the likes of famous Burgundian chardonnays, such as Puligny-Montrachet, in the backseat. The red stage was won by Stags Leap for their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, crushing the giants of Bordeaux, like the iconic Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
The Judgement of Paris has elevated Californian wine to a global phenomenon with connoisseurs. That fateful day of David versus Goliath in ’76 is still widely talked about on the west coast of the US. In France, no news articles have ever published by French media in the 41 years since this event.
> philip dunne is Head Sommelier at Ashford Castle, Cong. Trained by the Court of Master Sommeliers, he is part of the team voted the Best Wine Experience in Ireland 2016 at the Restaurant Association Awards in Ireland.