A Story I Didn’t Know…

…about a subject close to my heart. In today’s New York Post, Ralph Peters reviews a book by George Taber called Judgment of Paris. It recounts the story of a wine-tasting in Paris in 1976, when Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, arranged for little-known California wines to be tested against the best French vintages in a blind taste-test by prominent French critics:

Spurrier wasn’t setting a trap. He fully expected the French to win, choosing labels such as Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Meursault Charmes and Puligny-Montrachet for the face-off.

The American bottles came from upstart wineries built by wine-lovers risking everything for their dream. Mike Grgich had arrived virtually penniless from Croatia. He believed that American chardonnays could match the best of Burgundy. Warren Winiarski abandoned an academic career and mortgaged his family’s future to pursue his vision of making a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon to rival the greatest Bordeaux.

Spurrier invited nine influential French critics, sommeliers and restaurateurs. They tasted the wines without knowing their identities, snickering confidently as they scribbled down their scores.

The results were stunning. Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars beat the great chateaux. The triumph of the American chardonnays was even greater, with Grgich’s Chateau Montalena well ahead of the pack and other star-spangled whites in third and fourth place.

The experts were mortified. They’d trashed some of France’s most famous wines, while praising unknown wines from California. And none of this would’ve been publicized if one journalist hadn’t shown up during a slow news week: George Taber of Time, the author of this book.

As Peters notes, the 1976 wine-tasting upset helped open competition in the wine industry, with the result that wine drinkers now drink better and cheaper wines from all over the world–not only California varieties, but wines from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and other countries. And that’s definitely worth a toast.

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