A Mondavi Surprise
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
Slowly but surely, California wines have been chipping away at the reputation of European wines as the best in the world in competitive blind tastings that, while not definitive, have put to rest the notion that only France matters when push comes to shove. The results of a recent tasting I attended in New York show why California is such a contender.
The out-and-out horse race started in Paris in 1976 when two Napa Valley wines shocked their French competitors in a blind tasting organized by British wine merchant Steven Spurrier. The results: Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 beat out Bordeaux first growths such as chateaus Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion, while Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 bested a Burgundian lineup that included names like Meursault Les Charmes, Batard-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet. The results of the tasting were given even more credence given that the nine judges French and one was Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Burgundy's famed Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.
The latest bad news for the French came in May when a newly formed tasting panel called the Grand Jury Europeen decided to stack up Chardonnays from throughout the world in a competition to see which wines were the best. The panel is the brainchild of Belgian businessman Francois Mauss, who claims to run it on a not-for-profit basis. According to Mauss, all the wines are tasted over a two-day period by a panel of up to 26 tasters composed of wine authorities from throughout the world. The tastings span three vintages each of 30 different wines. Mauss claims to buy all the wines under the supervision of a notary and uses a modified 100-point scale for scoring. The results are then computer-tabulated. The tasting is not totally blind: the tasters are told the identity of the 30 wines beforehand, but not their order.
For Chardonnay, Mauss selected the 1989, 1992 and 1994 vintages, all of which Wine Spectator has rated very good to classic in terms of overall quality in California and France. Most of the wines were high-powered white Burgundies, but there were also representatives from Spain, Australia, Italy, and a sole American entry: the reserve Napa Valley Chardonnay from Robert Mondavi. Mauss claims there was no prejudice against the United States, explaining that of the 12 invitations to American wineries he sent out, only Mondavi replied.
The results: The Mondavi wine won, and it wasn't even close, according to Mauss. It beat out the likes of Meursault Les Charmes from Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche from Joseph Drouhin and Meursault Les Perrieres from J.-F. Coche-Dury. That may help explain the French attitude today toward Mauss. "The people most against me are in France. They don't like what I do," he said.
Recently in New York, Mondavi hosted a condensed re-creation of the tasting. It presented 10 wines, all from the 1994 vintage, to more than 60 invited tasters. As you can imagine, Mondavi has been trumpeting the results of the May tasting in France, with Mondavi founder Robert Mondavi especially jubilant. He's always said California wines could compete with the best in the world, and the fact that his wine won was a new personal high point.
Frankly, I approached the Mondavi tasting with a bit of trepidation. Mondavi is a master of public relations, and I was wary of a charm offensive in an environment under the company's control.
Once I sat down, however, I began to relax. Marcia Mondavi-Borger, Bob's daughter who lives in New York and is a member of the winery's board of directors, gave an introduction to the tasting. She is as straight-talking and down-to-earth as her father, and was just nervous enough to show she's human. Mauss was up next to explain his system. And then we got down to tasting without further interruption.
Though I knew the Mondavi wine was somewhere in the pack, I wasn't looking for it. I did have a preconception that it might be identifiable by the rich buttery oakiness that is a two-edged sword for California Chardonnay: great flavor but way too obvious and overdone.
Quickly, however, I found myself enjoying the wines for what they were: full of character and flavor. You know you're in the upper tier when one wine after another has a distinctive marker or subtlety in its taste. In addition, I found several of the wines had a nice buttery or butterscotch component, which further threw me off the track in any presumptive hunt for the Mondavi wine.
At the end, there was one wine that scored the highest for me: wine No. 8. I found it balanced, elegant and rich with a touch of restrained earthiness that I associate with the best white Burgundies. Wine No. 6 was my second-place finisher: Of all the wines, it was the most buttery and full-bore, with an almost creme brulee flavor to it. Perhaps this was the Mondavi, just because it was so obvious.
Well, I was wrong on both counts. Wine No. 8 was the Mondavi wine, and the runner-up was from Australia: the Rosemount Estate from Roxburgh. Third place was a tie for me between two white Burgundies: Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne and the Meursault Les Charmes from Lafon.
Wine No. 8 was a favorite of many of the other tasters as well. Mondavi had once again won in the court of public opinion. Not exactly a repeat of the shock waves that erupted from the 1976 Paris tasting, but another victory nonetheless for California. I also came away a believer, the more so because I had been caught by surprise.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.