In the end, the two California wines took the top prizes, presumably causing a good deal of slow eye-blinking and reflection among the nine judges, all French. To be fair, the only thing the judges did was agree to participate. It was Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who operated a fine wine shop in Paris who organized the event — a blind tasting of white Burgundy against California chardonnay, and red Bordeaux against California cabernet sauvignon. In each category there were six California wines and four French.
Spurrier invited the judges to the Paris InterContinental hotel for the tasting May 24, 1976. How lopsided would this contest be? Or how surprising? Individual scores varied, but overall the judges, believing that French wines stood above all others, ended up rating two California wines higher than the others, some of which were among the best their country had to offer.
It gets even better. The winning Chateau Montelena chardonnay, made by native Croatian Miljenko “Mike” Grgich (today a wine industry legend who recently celebrated his 93rd birthday), was just the second vintage produced by the Barrett family after buying the winery in 1972. Chicago native Warren Winiarski, another living legend in the wine world, made the winning Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon using grapes from vines he had planted only three years earlier.
The results of the tasting were eye-popping on one side and cause for celebration on the other, but the next important development in this whole scenario was that the lone journalist in attendance, George Taber, wrote a story about it in Time magazine. There was no turning back at that point. This was way more than an endorsement, unintentional or otherwise. It raised awareness of (and respect for) California wines but also acted as a sort of sword tap on each shoulder. It was the equivalent of tenure for a college professor, or a federal judgeship for a lawyer. The only way to lose the status would be to quit or to mess up in mind-boggling ways.
To commemorate our good fortune, it seemed apropos to track down the current vintages of the winning wines and give them a taste. It would have been un-American not to, actually.
The 2013 Chateau Montelena Winery Napa Valley Chardonnay ($50) was created by winemaker Matt Crafton, who works closely with CEO and master winemaker Bo Barrett, a mere cellar assistant in his father’s winery back in 1976. This is a crisp clean wine, full of lemon, green apple, orange zest and a whiff of anise all wrapped in pleasant minerality and leading to a clean, crisp finish. If you tell yourself you don’t like chardonnay, this one might change your mind.
The 2013 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon ($135) comes from winemaker Marcus Notaro’s first harvest at the winery. Made of 100 percent cabernet sauvignon and aged for 21 months in French oak barrels, it is silky and layered with plum, cherry, tobacco, leather and a lingering hint of cocoa. This wine would surely make a steak or short ribs better, but if your budget allows, it would do the same for a conversation in the vicinity of candlelight.
The impact of the Paris Tasting cannot be overestimated. It rippled out from Napa Valley to other parts of California and, in a way, has touched every state. A rising tide lifts all ships, and a rising reputation has made winemaking a legitimate pursuit anywhere within our borders.
Not only wine folks recognize the significance of this event. The Smithsonian Institution keeps a bottle of each winning wine in its collection, and even went so far as to pick them, from its 137 million artifacts, to be part of “101 Objects That Made America.” Joining the two bottles are Lewis and Clark’s compass, Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit.
Come to think of it, that’s the third great, lifelong gift we’ve received from France: the Smithsonian. It was James Smithson, the French-born son of a British duke, who willed his wealth — close to $11 million in today’s dollars — to the United States to create “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” In 1846 Congress founded the Smithsonian Institution, certainly never imagining that two wine bottles would be part of the collection 170 years later.