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Would California wine have succeeded without the 1976 Paris Tasting?

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Come join me, readers, on a thought experiment. It is forty years ago, May 24, 1976. Gerald Ford is President. The Concorde has just flown its first commercial flight to America. Bob Dylan celebrated his 35th birthday. And, far more importantly for the California wine industry, “a publicity stunt for a small wine store in Paris changed the world of wine forever,” says this article in last Saturday’s Washington Post.

It long has been the conventional wisdom that that “publicity stunt,” which now bears the famous name “The Judgment of Paris,” launched California wine to worldwide fame, a lofty position it still enjoys. Indeed, even Steven Spurrier, who organized the tasting, is quoted in the article as saying, [T]he New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.”

I wonder why Steven, who owned that “small wine store in Paris,” said “New World” instead of “California,” since the stars of the Paris tasting were from the Golden State. Slip of the pen, Dr. Freud? An Old World tendency to lump California, Australia, South Africa and Chile into the anonymous grab-bag of “New World”? Anyhow, back to our thought experiment. Imagine if you will that the Paris Tasting never took place. Steven Spurrier never scheduled it; George Taber, the TIME magazine reporter who broke the news to the English-speaking world, never wrote about it. The French were not outraged, because there was nothing to outrage them. The Judgment of Paris never happened.

Would it have made a difference to the trajectory of California wine? Let’s start with Steven’s remark that [T]he New World simply did not exist as a wine producer in the mind of the public.” ? Is that really true?

Well, it may have been true in Steven’s circle, which was based in mid-1970s Paris. By “the public” he might have meant his public: the winemakers, customers and acquaintances with whom he associated. But others beyond his circle already had noticed California wine, admired it, understood how well the best of it compared to the top French wines, and were spreading the word through their own circles, which were at least as influential, if not more so, than Steven Spurrier’s.

Among these was the man who had more influence on my own career than anyone else, Harry Waugh. In his series of Wine Diaries, which spanned twenty years, Harry shared with his many readers his growing appreciation of California wine, particularly from Napa Valley, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon; and Harry was well-connected, so when he spoke, people listened. He was on the Board of Directors of Chateau Latour (which for better or for worse was not included in the Paris Tasting), he guided Michael Broadbent’s career, and he practically introduced Pomerol to the British wine trade. Through his many tasting visits to California, which he faithfully recorded in the Diaries, Harry let the most influential gastronomes and enophiles in Britain and France (as well as America) know about the first wave of “boutique wineries” that arose in Northern California in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. To cite but a few examples, Harry compared a 1968 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, from Monte Rosso Vineyard, to Mouton-Rothschild, and wrote, after tasting 1968 Martha’s Vineyard at Heitz and then 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon from the old Souverain, that traveling between those two wineries “could be compared with visiting Chateau Lafite after Chateau Latour.”

This is no mean praise; and Harry wrote these words (in “Pick of the Bunch”) years before the Paris Tasting. Nor was Harry Waugh by any means the first to compare California wine to the best of France. The American wine writer, Julian Street, in his 1948 book, “Wines,” tasted “a white wine of 1919 from Beaulieu which gave a Montrachet a run for its money,” and had high praise for Cabernets from Martin Ray (whose 1936 vintage he called “the best wine ever to be made of the Claret grape in the United States”), Fountain Grove (in Santa Rosa), and Inglenook.

I could cite many more examples; you get the idea. California wine was building in identity and momentum for decades before the Paris Tasting; indeed, possibly the reason Steven Spurrier devised his tasting was because of that very fact. My own educated opinion is that, even without the Judgment of Paris, California wine would have become as famous as it now is. Of course, this is a surmisal; I think also that Pinot Noir would have become as famous as it now is even without Sideways. Such contentions cannot be proven, but events like the Paris Tasting and Sideways do not happen in vacuo; they are prompted and shaped by phenomena already extant that give rise to the Steven Spurriers and Rex Picketts. California wine indeed has become a phenomenon, but it was a long time coming, and did not start with the Judgment of Paris.

  1. I think the Judgment of Paris was definitely a big boost to California wine industry but ultimately the proximity of Silicon Valley and San Francisco what made Napa/Somoma boom. Wealthy business visitors to the area will always look for pass time outside work and spend money. There are great regions in different parts of the world (Barossa, Paso Robles, Washington, etc.) that are geographically “challenged” and they are still lagging behind despite the outstanding quality of wine.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Csaba,

    The billionaire wealth of Silicon Valley — epitomized by Google (IPO 2004) and Facebook (IPO 2012) founders — is only a recent phenomenon.

    The “dot coms” emerged in the late 1990s. (And then many of them crashed. Anyone recall a certain infamous sock puppet mascot?)

    Predating the “dot coms” were 1980s era computer companies like Apple. (Which almost went bankrupt in the mid-1990s before Steve Jobs returned to resuscitate the company.)

    And predating the computer companies were 1970s era computer chip companies.

    1980s Silicon Valley-based computer companies and 1970s chip companies didn’t spawn a tsunami wave of North Coast “wine country” investors or wine enthusiast buyers.

    ~~ Bob

  3. Bob Henry says:

    If one were to revisit 1970s era Napa Valley wine exports to the Continent (and in particular to France and England), I would project that 9-liter case shipments would be a rounding error against the base of U.S. consumption. Likewise against the base of European consumption.

    Even today such exports are Lilliputian.

    Readers of Decanter magazine reviews of California wines chuckle over the brands comprising the line-ups.

    Mostly large production “supermarket brands” — not the type found in fine wine stores.

    England benefits from low price wines coming from Commonwealth nation Australia, and from European Union nations.

    Similarly, France benefits from low price wines due to domestic production. (I don’t know too many proud/provincial Frenchmen who drink other EU nation wines.)

    Without The Judgment of Paris, Napa Valley wines would have taken far longer to reach “top of mind awareness” amongst wine enthusiasts and wine collectors.

    Steven Spurrier should be elected to the California wine industry “hall of fame” for his pioneering 1976 efforts.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    See the exhibit on page 27 of this Wine Institute report:

    “Milestones in California Wine”

    https://www.wineinstitute.org/files/Jon%20Fredrikson%20Presentation%20WI%2075th.pdf

    The surge in the “California Wine Grape Crush” starting circa 1976 is unmistakable.

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