The Judgment of Paris.

May 24 2006 3:05 PM

The Judgment of Paris

What the French didn't learn from the legendary wine-tasting.

French vineyard. Click image to expand.
French vineyard

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, the legendary tasting in which a pair of unheralded California wines bested some of France's most celebrated reds and whites. It was, you might say, the collective slurp heard round the world. France losing to the United States at wine? Unthinkable. In a century filled with indignities for France, the Judgment of Paris was another cruel blow. For the most part, though, the French refused to take the result seriously, dismissing it as either an aberration or, worse, the product of Anglo-American chicanery (the tasting was organized by a Brit, Steven Spurrier, who was accused of serving French wines that were either too young or from inferior vintages). The central lesson of the tasting—that competition was now at hand and that French wines would no longer necessarily enjoy a presumption of superiority—was lost on the French. Thirty years later, some of them are paying dearly for their complacency.

The story of the Great Vinous Smackdown is retold in the recently published Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine, written by George M. Taber, the Time magazine correspondent who covered the event. The tasting featured nine French wine experts, among them Odette Kahn, editor of the influential Revue du Vin de France; and Christian Vannequé, sommelier of the three-star Parisian restaurant La Tour d'Argent. The French wines were no less reputable and included the 1970 Haut-Brion, the 1970 Mouton Rothschild, and the 1973 Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles. But when the scores were tallied that afternoon at Paris' InterContinental Hotel, it was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from Napa that finished first among the whites, and the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, also from Napa, that was tops among the reds. According to Taber, one unnamed, aggrieved Bordeaux chateau owner later told Spurrier, "You've spat in our soup."

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Taber's book has inspired a number of commemorative tastings in the lead-up to the anniversary. But the most eagerly awaited Judgment of Paris re-creation is the one being held today—an event organized primarily by Spurrier that is taking place simultaneously in London and Napa. Once more, an impressive panel has been assembled, although this one is not exclusively French; the judges include Vannequé; two British masters of wine, Jancis Robinson and Michael Broadbent; and the journalist Michel Bettane, often called France's Robert Parker. With a few exceptions, the wines are equally stellar. However, unlike the original Judgment of Paris, which became controversial only after the fact, the sequel has been plagued with problems from the outset.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story detailing the difficulties Spurrier has encountered. According to the Journal, the leading Bordeaux châteaux were reluctant to submit any recent vintages for a comparative tasting and ultimately persuaded Spurrier not to put the younger French wines up against their California counterparts (the concern is that the French wines, being slower to mature, would be at a disadvantage). Thus, the only competitive, fully blind portion of today's tasting will be the first flight, featuring the same 10 red wines that were part of the 1976 event. The younger wines (from 2000 to 2004) will be segregated geographically and tasted semiblind—the participants won't know which wine is which, but they will know that Flight 3 consists only of white Burgundies, Flight 4 California cabernets, and so forth.

This arrangement has caused much outrage in the wine blogosphere, where the French are being accused of—what else?—cowardice. (Never mind that two California wineries, Harlan and Kistler, declined to participate.) But when I spoke with Spurrier this week, he insisted the French didn't have to twist his arm regarding the format. He agreed that it would be unfair to pit young Bordeauxs against equally youthful California cabernets in a blind tasting, because the wines do age differently. In 1976, when California wines still had something to prove, he explained, a head-to-head match-up was necessary. But California established its worthiness 30 years ago.

Still, I think it's a pity they went with a watered-down format. True, we don't need a competitive tasting to tell us that California makes great wines. But a second Judgment of Paris, done well, might have been even more interesting and revealing than the original. A blind tasting that included the three other major grape varieties in which the United States now produces noteworthy wines—merlot, syrah, and pinot noir—could have answered, or raised, all sorts of intriguing questions. Probably the most remarkable aspect of the 1976 tasting, for instance, was how often the California chardonnays were mistaken for white Burgundies. Today, would California chardonnays—which have generally become oakier and more alcoholic over the years—prove equally deceptive? And what about California pinot noir? It's generally considered an entirely different breed than its Burgundian cousin, but who knows what a blind tasting would have turned up.

This new Judgment of Paris comes at a time when a large segment of the French wine industry is mired in crisis—a crisis that might have been mitigated had the French not ignored the message of the first Judgment of Paris. France is currently sitting on an ocean of unsold wine, a glut that has led to a collapse in prices at the cheaper end of the spectrum. According to the New York Times, some 100 million liters of Appellation d'Origine Controlee wine was distilled into ethanol last year. That's enough to fill 133 million bottles. Across France, hundreds of winemakers, and possibly thousands, are on the verge of bankruptcy; it has been suggested by some trade organizations that in the Languedoc, the hardest-hit region, 30 to 50 percent of wineries may ultimately be forced out of business. There have been a number of protests tied to the crisis, and several suicides, as well.

The proximate cause of all this unhappiness is that sales of French wines have been plummeting at home and overseas, especially at the lower price points. Domestic consumption has dropped by more than 40 percent over the last four decades. And France has been hemorrhaging market share abroad, particularly in the two fastest-growing markets, the United States and Britain. The French share of the American market for imported wines fell from 26 percent in 1994 to 14 percent in 2004. Inept marketing is one big reason for the decline, and this ineptitude can be put down to complacency and chauvinism.

The French have been blindsided by the emergence of aggressive competition from Italy, Spain, Australia, South America, and other regions. This isn't true of the very finest French producers; thanks in part to the Judgment of Paris, they recognized early on that the New World was capable of making excellent wine, and they worked to improve their own offerings (which they have done—the good French wines have never been better). By and large, though, after 1976, the French continued to assume that their wines were the only ones worth drinking. They had little interest in foreign wines (even now, French wine shops offer astonishingly few imports), and they put little effort into salesmanship because they figured that French wines, simply by virtue of being French, would sell themselves. Interviewed several years ago, one Burgundian winemaker, Patrick Hudelot, put it well: "In France, there is a belief that you don't need to market your wine, that France's reputation is enough. And that way we are being left behind."

So they are. Thirty years after the Judgment of Paris, shrewdly marketed brands like Australia's Yellow Tail are winning over budget-minded drinkers around the world while a bloated, inefficient French wine industry grapples with millions of liters of unwanted wine and a growing army of destitute vintners. The French can't say they weren't warned.

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