May 23, 2006
California's turning point

Wednesday is the 30th anniversary of what’s become known on the international wine stage as “The Judgment of Paris.”

On May 24, 1976, a panel of nine esteemed French wine judges tasted four white Burgundies against six California chardonnays, and four Grand Crus from Bordeaux against six California cabernet sauvignons to determine the best in the flights.

The tasting was blind, and much to the subsequent chagrin of the French they chose California wines as the best in each division, vaulting California wine into prominence alongside the finest wines in the world.

“It was a kick in the butt for the California wine industry, bringing confidence to the Californians,” says Christian Vanneque, who at 25 was the youngest of the French judges. “The French lost, California was here to stay. More than a statement was made.”

I chatted Monday evening with Vanneque in the Eureka Room of the state Capitol, temporarily converted into a wine cellar so legislators could recognize formally the 11 California wineries to participate in the 1976 tasting. (One, Veedercrest Vineyards of Carneros, no longer is in business.)

With each major milestone, the Paris tasting seems to grow in stature and mythology. At the time of the tasting, for one, Vanneque was head sommelier at the celebrated Parisian restaurant La Tour d’Argent. His boss was so miffed by the results of the tasting that Vanneque reputedly was fired. Never happened, says Vanneque today, though he was admonished that he never again should join such a competition. “And I didn’t get a raise for several months.”

Also on hand Monday was George M. Taber, author of last year’s “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine” (Scribner, $26, 326 pages).

In 1976, Taber was a correspondent for Time magazine, and the only journalist to cover the tasting. Rumors over the years, such that the French were tricked into participating in the tasting and that the outcome led to a fistfight among the judges, is what prompted him to write the book. He wanted to set the record straight on what increasingly has evolved into a truly historic event in California’s wine history.

“It was all very dignified. No one that day in that room appreciated that something historic had happened. Only 10 years later did it dawn on me that this was a turning point in the history of California wine,” says Taber.

Just one of the 20 wines poured May 24, 1976, still was being poured Monday night, the Ridge Vineyards 1971 California Cabernet Sauvignon. It was an artifact of the wine that finished fifth in the 1976 tasting of the reds, well past its prime but still showing solid structure and subtle but intriguing complexity.
A look at the fine print on the label showed that it had just 12.2 percent alcohol, modest by today’s standards.

Why, I asked another guest Monday evening, Warren Winiarski, whose Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon won the tasting, are alcohol levels in California wines so comparatively high these days?

“I think it’s ego driven. If a lot is good, more is better, goes the thinking. We can get all the ripeness we want, but should we? I don’t think so. Beauty and fatigue don’t go together. If you get tired of a wine, something’s wrong,” says Winiarski, addressing a common complaint that today’s high-alcohol wines tend to exhaust rather than refresh the palate. He couldn’t recall for sure the alcohol of his winning ‘73 cabernet, but he was confident it was under 13 percent.

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