Merci, Paris: How comparative wine tastings benefit the entire industry

It’s been a bit of a rough year for the French.  Based upon the principles of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the Old World wine juggernaut has been cornered once again into recognizing that its New World brethren have developed into wine producers of equal finesse and skill.  While the recognition may not be a public sharing of the torch by the vintners of France, the results at several blind tastings raises the spectre of a painful past and again calls into question the wine world’s top dog.

The recent past has not been kind to the old guard of the wine industry.  The revolution began in earnest when a bunch of upstart young vineyards in California were brought in to challenge the noble traditions of France in the 1976 Judgment of Paris.  Organized by a French wine merchant, with 8 of 9 judges also French, this blind trial of reds and whites turned the tables on notions of quality wine and highlighted the rise of an expanding global reality.

What was supposed to be an overwhelming victory for France quickly spiraled into embarrassing defeat and a still on-going battle to refute the results.  Steven Spurrier, the aforementioned merchant, dealt only in French wines and admitted, following the competition, that he thought he had slanted the playing field heavily in French favor.  To his and everyone else’s shock, the panel of judges at the Paris tasting were unable to easily distinguish between offerings from California, and those from France.  Score cards comments showed the brazen confidence of these experts as they declared one cabernet sauvignon to reveal “the magnificence of France” (it was a Napa Valley product), while a chardonnay was thought to be “most definitely a California. It has no nose”.  The latter turned out to be a Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon ‘73 from the Burgundian regional powerhouse.

When all was said and done, three of the top four chardonnays were of American origin, as was the top cabernet, and all nine of the judges had awarded their top scores to the upstart Californians.  The results were so disturbing that French journalists largely ignored it, many still deny it, and plausible causes for the loss  were bandied about with fervor. 

While the French reeled, New World wine makers, who had been struggling for recognition and respect, celebrated.  Although prior tastings had produced similar results, these had taken place on North American soil and the French enthusiasts dismissed the competitions outright by claiming bias and poor handling of the French wines during transit.  Here though, with the Judgment of Paris was, if anything, a French-biased tasting that produced similar results.  Here was the empirical evidence the rest of the wine world needed to assert itself in the old boys’ club. 

George Taber, the lone journalist present at the event, summed up the prevailing pre-Paris attitude by saying that “[b]efore the Paris tasting, France was on a pedestal and everybody else was making plonk”.  He, a novice wine writer, found himself a bewildered center of attention in the midst of a storm of controversy.   Normally specializing in business pieces, his four-paragraph writeup launched him, and Napa Valley, into the oenophilic limelight.

Mike Grgich, whose Chateau Montelena ‘73 that grabbed top spot amongst the chardonnays, echoed similar sentiments and addressed the impact that the tasting had on the industry. He suggested that the strong New World results forced an awareness of non-traditional wine regions and promoted more openness in an industry steeped in the status quo.

“Before the Paris tasting,” he said, “the French could always say, terroir, terroir, terroir.  After the Paris tasting, we learned there are good soils everywhere — California, Australia, Chile.”

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the historical occurence and as you might imagine, there was a flurry of interest (mostly on the American end; the French threatened to boycott entirely) in reproducing the event.  Similar recreations had been undertaken for the 10th anniversary in 1986 by institutions like the French Culinary Institute and Wine Spectator magazine.  One of the oft-repeated mantras to come out of the French side in 1976 was that the French wines would no doubt age much better than their Californian counterparts.  These 10th anniversary tastings however; showed quite the opposite, with the American wines generally increasing their rankings and climbing higher in the results tables.

Would the “lucky” streak continue in 2006?  In association with original organizer Spurrier, simultaneously blind tastings were held Berry Bros. & Rudd, a wine merchant in London, England, and at COPIA in California.  The eighteen judges, including one from the original tasting, not only came to similar conclusions on the cabernets (the whites were not re-tasted), but in fact produced an even more decisive victory for the American vintners.  Californian vintages grabbed the top five spots, an improvement over 1976, when only the Stag’s Leap earned those honors.

Christian Vannequé, the only judge present at both the original and this 30th anniversary tasting admitted that he had been predicting “the downfall of California”.  Prior to the re-tasting the judges “told ourselves [in 1976] that yes, the California wines won because they were more mature, they were too open, and they couldn’t last.  Today’s tasting showed that that was not true; the California wines aged gracefully.  They won also the test of time.”

Not as mind-blowing as the Judgment of Paris, but another step in terms of broadening the horizons of acceptability, was a January 2006 Ontario Wine Society blind tasting that featured Canadian and French wines.  Although participants were told that only Canadian and French wine were to be tried, the tasting featured a total of ten wines from British Columbia, Ontario, Bordeaux and a ‘ringer’, or secret addition, from New Zealand.  Surprisingly, it was the ringer that stole the show, followed by a string of five Canadian wines.  A Bordeaux did not make an appearance in the results until the seventh place slot.

Do the Paris tasting results, and all of the subsequent world versus France tastings mean that New World wine has surpassed their older brother, or that French wine is on a decline?  Not hardly at all.  I personally don’t put a lot of stock in tasting scores and reviews that aren’t produced by my own nose and tongue – not out of egotistical tendencies, just out of recognition for individual preferences – the entire history of these competitions is interesting in that they mark shifts in the collective wine conscience.  I don’t view these results as a slight against France, nor do I, as a North American, feel any sort of desire to gloat.  Is it really all that shocking that Ontario wine folks would prefer the style of Ontario wines?  And really, if you have a bunch of Californians sitting at a tasting table, would they perhaps not be drawn to the subtle nuances of difference between theirs and a French offering?  Personal taste is personal taste.

I think the lesson to be learned from competitions like these is not who can crow superiority for the next several years, nor whose ego must be stroked by the wine media ad nauseum, but rather that there is room for growth, novelty and broader appreciation.  You don’t have to like French cru wine just because it’s French cru wine.  Similarly you don’t have to turn your nose up at Niagara region wines simply because they don’t benefit from hundreds of years of reputation.

Good wine becomes good wine regardless of where it comes from, traditional biases are laid aside in favor of experimentation and exploration, and a sense of vigor is injected into an industry that has the unfortunate reputation for stodginess and snobbery.  Wine has now become a global economy; a multicultural patchwork of vintages to be enjoyed by the experienced drinker and new enthusiast alike.  More accessibility for a wider variety of vineyards in terms of marketability has contributed to a higher accessibility in general and is reflected in the explosive surge of interest in all things wine.

The Judgment of Paris may not be able to claim full responsibility for this renaissance, but it certainly opened the door to new ideas and helped to ignite new feelings of competitiveness amongst the makers.  The words ‘alternative’, ‘non-traditional’, and ‘New World’ no longer bear the stigma of unacceptability, and consumers are confronted with the boundless choices resulting from more open perspectives. 

The questioning of the status quo and ability of the industry to periodically self-evaluate and re-examine, has made for a stronger presence and increased recognition worldwide.  These tastings display the strengths of wine and are ever-more reflective of the enticing diversity now available.  Here’s hoping the upsets, regardless of who is on the winning and losing end, continue long into the future.

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