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The Sip Heard Round the World

In "Judgment of Paris," George M. Taber describes his front seat to a revolution

James Laube
Posted: September 8, 2005

Thirty years ago, as the U.S. prepared to celebrate its bicentennial, a showdown between French and Californian wines in Paris resulted in one of those "man bites dog" stories.

In a blind tasting, a panel of French experts compared Napa Valley Chardonnays with white Burgundies, and Napa Cabernet Sauvignons with red Bordeaux. The upstart Americans—"the kids from the sticks"—won both flights, led by a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena (a blend of Napa and Alexander Valley grapes) and a 1973 Napa Valley Cabernet from Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.

The event might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the presence of George M. Taber, an American journalist in Paris working for Time magazine. Taber initially thought it absurd to compare France's finest wines with California unknowns.

"It seemed like a nonevent—clearly France would win," he writes, but the tasting also seemed "like a perfectly wonderful way to spend an otherwise slow afternoon."

When May 24, 1976, came, Taber had the time and enough curiosity to attend, witnessing the entire event, watching the judges evaluate the wines and even tasting the wines himself.

When the votes were tallied and the results announced, he had a story. He wrote a short item that made it into Time with the headline "Judgment of Paris." The final tidy sentence summed up the unthinkable results: "California (wines) defeated all of Gaul."

If Taber hadn't covered the tasting—and other media had not spread the word—it might have been dismissed as a one-time fluke or publicity stunt rather than the public-relations coup it gave the Californians. Instead, the Paris Tasting unquestionably changed the way the wine world looked at California wine.

It's less clear whether this tasting of hand-picked wines—the brainchild of Patricia Gallagher, organized and promoted by her and English wine merchant Steven Spurrier—revolutionized wine, as Taber's subtitle asserts.

"Revolution," after all, is a strong word, and one can hardly suggest that the French wine world had been overthrown. Upset? Yes. Embarrassed? Probably. Ambushed? Perhaps. Humbled? Definitely. But the decade of the 1980s delivered a series of monumental vintages to France's major wine regions and resulted in unprecedented prosperity and prestige.

While the victors in this tasting (and even some of the runners-up) received a tidal wave of publicity, what often seems overlooked, or minimized, is that California already had a burgeoning wine industry—and a lot of excellent wines. And with or without the Paris Tasting, California would have gone on to become exactly what it is—one of the world's premier wine-producing regions. That is more evolution than revolution.

That few outside the Golden State were keenly aware of this progress is no doubt one reason the Paris Tasting had such an impact. Now, thanks to Taber and his journalist's eye for detail, one can read all about it.

Judgment of Paris is an intelligently written, well-researched, smooth-paced account of the events leading up to the tasting and its aftermath. Fans of California wine will particularly enjoy the first half of the book, which follows the paths of such vintners as Warren Winiarski and Miljenko Grgich from their birthplaces to Napa Valley (where, ironically, they both had their first jobs at Lee Stewart's Souverain winery on Howell Mountain).

The story of how Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet, and Grgich's Chardonnay, made at Chateau Montelena, won the Paris tasting is both a "rags to riches" and "David beats Goliath" tale. Those kinds of stories help keep the American Dream alive.

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Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine, by George M. Taber (Scribner, 288 pages, $25.00)

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