It’s now been 89,502 days – 45 years and 18 days, to be geeky about it – since Stephen Spurrier held what he thought would be a low-impact little event that would summarily crush all this new and growing conviction that Californians (and, by extensions, Americans) actually knew anything about making wine. Ten wines, in bags, four legendary French whites, six obscure California whites. Another ten, four Grand Cru Bordeaux reds, six No Cru California Cabernets, again in bags, all tasted blind, meaning that the judges had no idea which wine they were tasting and had to evaluate purely on merit. Spurrier later admitted that his aim was not to challenge France’s historically unchallenged assumption of wine superiority but to show that, hey, America has come a long way and these might just be, uh, drinkable, if you’re feeling kinky. He wanted something else to sell in his Paris wine shop and California was the logical place to look.
The eleven judges were all French except for Spurrier and his colleague Patricia Gallagher, the tasting held in a Paris hotel – not in the crumbling ruins of an old chapel, as in the wonderful movie “Bottle Shock” – and the atmosphere was decidedly, well, stress-free. Nobody, including Spurrier and the Time magazine correspondent, George Taber (the lone journalist who accepted Spurrier’s invitation) and even the Napa winemakers who submitted wines for the tasting – Chateau Montelena owner, Jim Barrett said bluntly, “They won’t let us win.” – thought the California wineries even had a chance…except for Spurrier’s American colleague, Patricia Gallagher, who originally alerted Spurrier to the fact that something game-changing was taking place in California and said that maybe a tasting would dovetail nicely with the American Bicentennial? Ya think? Maybe?
What nobody saw was a literal Revolution taking place; a second American Revolution, starting the day after Taber’s piece, called “The Judgment of Paris”, first appeared in Time. California wine, before that day, was an established business but not wildly successful and mostly dominated by several huge corporate wineries. It seems impossible now but most CA wine sold in America was white and was Chardonnay and was usually so tarted-up with unctuous new oak barrels and even some additives, done on the QT, that it scarcely resembled Chardonnay at all. Many small CA wineries of that time embraced the French aesthetic and worked at making a Burgundian style of Chardonnay, relatively un-fiddled with but they were struggling to sell even Chard, much less the reds, which were, at the time, a whole lotta Nowhere in national commercial sales.
Thousands of articles and untold millions of words have been written about The Judgment but I want to touch on one aspect that filmmaker Randall Miller grasped from the outset and used as a central theme of the movie: relationships. Father and son, experts and amateurs, the very idea of “pecking order”, and, most centrally, California as the hugely French-influenced teenager, in wine terms, stepping up to Father France and saying, “See? I can do this, too!“
The French have seethed on a low boil for this entire 45 years ‘n’ change, trying to rationalize away how a panel composed of nine French judges, one American and one Brit could have ever voted the Number One spot on both the red and white tastings…to Napa Valley wines. Chateau Montelena’s ’73 Chardonnay took the top spot in whites and Stag’s Leap’s 1973 Cabernet took top red. The judges and the whole French wine establishment, to a person, went ballistic. One of the judges, Odette Khan, editor of the French wine review, openly declared the tasting invalid, even though she, herself, scored Stag’s Leap’s and Mayacamas Vineyards’ two reserve Cabs first and second in the red tasting. The Gallic disdain, long a legendary upturn of the nose and an eloquent shrug, was cranked up to eleven on the volume knobs and, in a very real, tangible sense, France never recovered.
American sales of French wines – most savvy American wine drinkers, up until this tasting and even beyond, drank mostly French wines and many have continued to look down their own Gallically-uplifted noses at California “fruit bombs” – have slowly declined in the US and that slide was hastened even faster by the “60 Minutes”/Morley Safer segment in 1991, in which he revealed that doctors attributed the weird fact of the French, generally, being far less obese and plagued by heart disease than Americans to the drinking of red wine. The French momentarily embraced this finding – another atomic bomb in the marketplace – as an indicator that wine drinkers would come home to those superior French wines…until sales showed that Americans correctly deduced that their own, far less expensive US reds would work just fine and do the same thing in the body. And thus the massive boom in California red wine and the eventual ascendance of Cabernet Sauvignon to the best-selling wine grape in the US, displacing Chardonnay after more than a century, were set off by ONE single 4:16 prime-time TV segment…just as five paragraphs in Time Magazine exploded under Napa Valley.
America, the unruly teenager with the loud hippie music and the sartorial aesthetic of an unmade bed, had looked their French parents in the eye and delivered the goods in Papa’s own arena. The idea of these relationships plays itself out endlessly, all across the world of wine. In 1976, Washington and Oregon had about 50 wineries between them. (Today, about 1,000) The wines were mostly white and mostly sweet. Washington is the Number Two wine-producing state and had traditionally bristled at comparisons with California. Today, Washington and Oregon both produce wines that can stand with the best to come out of California and France and recognition of that, while very slow in coming, has gathered real momentum. Italian, Spanish, Australian, Argentinian, Japanese, wine shops now stock Washington and Oregon wines and other wines from other US states.
Before this week, I had only let myself watch “Bottle Shock” once, about ten years ago. These past few days, I brought it up on stream, where I could run it back and forth and pay closer attention and it has held up remarkably well, in large part because of intense, fully-invested performances by Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Freddy Rodriguez, and the great Bill Pullman…but also because of Randall Miller’s seeing past the sufficiently-interesting facts of this tasting and how it came about and infusing it with what lies at the heart of the tasting and resonates with all of us: fathers and sons, Mothers and daughters, old and young, seasoned and unjaded…The Old World versus The New World.
The story of The Judgment of Paris is enough of a mystery story to grab your attention…in Miller’s hands and with his telling of the story and casting of the roles, it also grabs your heart.
Happy 45th, Judgment of Paris. Thanks for helping us graduate.