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Happy 40th Judgment of Paris! But you had a downside

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This year, 2016, marks the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, which was one of the most important events in the history of the wine industry.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re tuned into history, so I will recapitulate only an abbreviated version. Before 1976 California wines were widely perceived as who-cares? After the Judgment, they were launched onto the world stage. That’s the kind of paradigm shift Thomas Kuhn would have loved.

The paradigm did not change overnight. Even by the early 1990s the French still were largely dismissive of California wine. They heard, or thought and feared they heard, footsteps coming up behind them that threatened their world supremecy in wine; but they told themselves, and everyone else who would listen, that, no, California was nothing to be feared, because (as the head of the INAO said in 1989 and I was there so I heard him) “Caifornia can steal our grape varieties. They can steal our techniques. But they cannot steal our terroir.”

California responded with, Hey, guess what? We don’t need your terroir, we got our own, thank you.

However great the Judgment of Paris was for California wine, it did have a downside: Americans learned, or thought they learned, that the only wines they ought to like were Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Those two varieties are of course immensely important and there’s a reason they’re both considered noble varieties; but they hardly exploit the entire range of varieties California could grow well. We can in fact grow anything well here. Without the Judgment of Paris, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Trebbiano, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Tempranillo, and who knows what else might have had a tail wind that sent it soaring. Instead, everybody concentrated on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The rise of Pinot Noir was an exception: but it received its own boost in the media, in the form of Sideways.

The Naples Daily News just ran a story about the Judgment of Paris, and asked, in their opening sentence, the interesting question, “What if there had never been a Judgment of Paris?” That’s the kind of conjectural thinking I like, so I read the article, but was enormously disappointed that the author never answered her own inquiry. Why ask it if you’re not going to have some fun speculating? My take is that other grape varieties would have had a greater opportunity to show what they could do. Instead, California went chocolate-and-vanilla (with, as I said, Pinot playing the spoiler of strawberry). Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not prepared to say. But if you’re playing the “what if” game, you have to wonder how things would have turned out if, say, the boutique wineries of the 1970s and 1980s had decided to turn their attentions to varieties other than Chard and Cab. Some tried: Sangiovese had its moment in the sun. But by then, the die was cast: Americans wanted only Cabernet and Chardonnay. The marketing and sales people took over; production had to listen to them, and we are where we are.

Have a great weekend!

  1. I’ve thought about this and it’s fun, but also hard for me to see the full splay of falling dominoes across the last 40 years. Considering the strength of Cab and Chard worldwide (and the fact that Wente had already given California its own distinctive Chard clone), it’s hard to imagine the King and Queen would have been much reduced in their presence.

    The points I think about, if George Taber hadn’t shown up, are:

    — American wine probably would have entered the world stream much as Chilean wine did. Its quality then would have spoken for itself.
    — Would AVA definition and development have taken off as well(Augusta, MO was still four years away)? If it did not, how would that have impacted the development of American viniculture?
    — What big players would not have entered the business? Would Richard Sanford, for example, have followed his vision and passion in Sta. Rita Hills? Would wineries have become the new life path of wealthy retired attorneys and investment bankers, history professors, architects, geologists, musicians, and more?
    — Wouldn’t at least 40 states have decided they didn’t really need to work so hard to grow grapes?
    — What other dominoes would fall differently because the industry under-developed? Slower adoption of sustainability standards? Less underwriting of UC Davis? No tourist dollars in Temecula? More garlic in Gilroy?
    — What would young Robert Parker have told us to drink (and would anybody have listened)?

  2. I too think that the Judgement of Paris was an important paradigm shift in the minds of both producers and consumers. However, I think equal to that event and perhaps more prescient was the decade long impact that of The Robert Mondavi Winery, which was founded 10 years earlier in 1966! I entered the wine trade just before the summer of 1976 and the level of educational support that was already being driven by Mondavi through the distribution, retail and restaurant channels was nothing short of spectacular. Not solely revolved around what they produced but the idea that the wines from California had a place on the table with the great wines of the world. The Paris tasting was icing on the cake for new world wine producers.

  3. Ron Saikowski says:

    Before 1976’s judgment, all great wines were by wine region with nothing related to grape varietals as they are today. After 1976, it no longer mattered about wine region designation. What mattered most in New World Wines was varietals and eventually some blend styles. California has its great varietals. Oregon does also. NY has its Rieslings and other cool weather varietals. Other wine regions including Texas from where I am from tried to copy the varietals which made California great. However, Texas and other regions are now identifying with varietals that many have not encountered in the mainstream of California wines like Viogniers, Tempranillos, Albarinos, Rousannes, Blanc du Bois and more. The evolution after 1976 is for regions to evolve their own varietals that reflect their locality!

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