What is the "1976 Judgement of Paris" that changed the history of wine?
Updated: Jun 10, 2021
Toyo Kezai Online
By Jun Fukui
Published June 10, 2017
Read the full article in Japanese here.
June 2017 Toyo Keizai Online
"1976 Judgment of Paris"—the Event that Changed Wine History Forever
France versus America—who makes the most delicious wine?
Jun Fukui (Reporter, Toyo Keizai)
(photo caption) Reenactment in Tokyo of the famous “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting when California wines beat the best from France, permanently changing wine history. Which wine did the nine judges crown this time — France or the USA? (photograph by reporter)
California Wines Get Surprise Win Over France
This may come out of the blue, but have you ever heard of the “Judgment of Paris?”
Forty-one years ago on May 24, 1976, a wine event – the biggest of the 20th century – made an indelible mark on wine’s long history. The venue was the Paris Intercontinental Hotel. French wines, reigning supreme in the world at the time, suffered a totally unexpected defeat to California wines in a blind tasting. Any connoisseur of wine will be familiar with this incident. The main organizer of the blind tasting event was Englishman Steven Spurrier who ran a wine school in France. American students and customers who lived in France and attended his school often brought him California wines as a souvenir. So surprised at their high quality, Spurrier decided to introduce them in France.
The original purpose of the event was not a battle of France versus California, but rather as a chance to showcase California wines and show people that American wines are also pretty good. Spurrier gathered various California wines and set the rules as follows:
· Tasting of ten red and ten white wines: six California and four French brands in each category. The French came out fighting with reds from the Medoc district of Bordeaux and whites from the top domains of Burgundy.
· Nine judges — all famous French wine experts. Wines to be tasted blind. Maximum of 20 points to be awarded to each brand. If all nine gave full points, a wine received 180 points.
· Red and white grape varieties: reds all Bordeaux's signature variety Cabernet Sauvignon; whites all Burgundy's signature grape, Chardonnay.
California wines were unquestionably the “away team” in the event held at a French venue with an all-French judging panel. While the organizer wished to sell California wine, the objective of this event was only ever to see how close California wines could come to France’s extraordinary wines.
But the results handed down by the nine judges were astounding. Taking first place for both red and white were California wines. Shining in first place among the ten reds was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon (127.5 points). And the first-placed white was the Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay (132 points). Both wineries were not long established. The nine expert judges went pale, with some of them viewed with contempt by the French wine industry for many years thereafter.
France Beaten a Second Time
But there is more to the “Judgment of Paris” story. Based on French claims that French wine comes into their own through aging, and young wines should not be expected to compete even if they are top class, rematches were held a decade later in 1986 and again 30 years later in 2006. But both times (only with reds) California wines won again, and France was beaten at its own game.
How far did these events go to aid the development of American wines? There is an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC of “101 Objects that Made America” (the 101 most important things in building US history). There beside the space suits worn for the Apollo moon landing are the winning red and white wines from the “Judgment of Paris.”
It goes without saying that the winegrowing regions have experienced dramatic growth since. In 1972 in California's Napa Valley — the home of the champion red and white wines – there were just 25 wineries compared to about 500 today.
And there is still more to the story. No follow-up event was held in 2016, but this year on May 24, several of Japan's top wine collectors organized the “Judgment of Paris in Tokyo” as the third rematch.
Despite being described as the third rematch, it was not a battle of France versus California, but rather a wine tasting to “celebrate the development of wine overall.”
Having said that, the first event – a party attended by wine connoisseurs from business and sports worlds – was essentially a reenactment of the 1976 “Judgment of Paris,” and the nine judges (two French and two American experts, and five Japanese) conducted a blind tasting of the original red Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
The five Japanese judges were: KYOTO KITCHO CEO and Executive Chef, Kunio Tokuoka; Hotel New Otani Executive Chef Sommelier, Nobuhide Tani; Tsuji Culinary Institute Representative, Yoshiki Tsuji; The Wine Kingdom President and CEO, Keiko Murata; and House of Representatives Member, Kenji Eda.
Despite being dubbed as a festival modelled on the events from 41 years earlier, the nine judges were a picture of seriousness.
Being a blind tasting, the order of service is totally random, but what came to light later was that the first wine was the 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and the last was the American 1972 Clos du Val.
“The Third Judgment” — California Wins Again
And the results? Announced by the organizers at the second stage of the event and touted as a record merely for reference, should we say that the results were somewhat expected?
The wine taking first place in Tokyo was the Californian 1969 Freemark Abbey with 153.5 points. Second place was also a Californian wine – 1971 Mayacamas. In last place was the French 1971 Chateau Leoville Las Cases with 119 points.
Interestingly, Freemark Abbey placed last at the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” with just 78 points. But it gained fame as the only winery to have both red and white wines in the 1976 tasting. The winery flourished from the 1970s having garnered attention from the judgment, but was later ruined by untenable expansion of production volumes. The winery almost disappeared from people's memories until a change of owner restored the brand to its former fame. This shows how California wines, too, have their ups and downs.
The significance of the “Judgment of Paris” can be summarized as follows, according to event organizers: 1) led by Napa California wines, those of Chile, Argentina, Africa and other regions also grew popular around the world; 2) having become aware of its arrogance, France began working diligently on improvements; and 3) blind tasting enables judges to appreciate the true quality of wine without being swayed by preconceptions.
Recently, Japanese wines, too, have experienced a sudden rise in prestige, and I hope that events such as these will help strengthen their brands.
A legend appears at the “Judgment of Paris in Tokyo.” Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars – the 1976 winner – spoke about those times. Scenes from the “Judgment of Paris in Tokyo” are scheduled to be broadcast on June 10 (Sat) from 9 p.m. on BS 11.