A panel with people under French and American flags

The Judgement of Paris forever changed the world of wine.

In 1976, the world of wine was irrevocably altered. It all begins with Steven Spurrier, who ran a wine shop in Paris with a reputation for selling only the very best of French wine. Named Les Caves de la Madeleine, this popular specialty shop helped to advance Spurrier’s reputation as a champion of fine wines from France. In fact, Spurrier was so confident in his love of French wine, that he came up with a blind tasting in which some of the country’s finest wines would be matched against supposedly lesser wines from the New World.

Such a spectacle would only improve the business Spurrier was cultivating. Or, so he thought. Spurrier matched Premiere Cru Bordeaux’s against Cabernet Sauvignons and Chablis’ of Burgundy with Chardonnay both from Napa Valley. While Spurrier admitted that he enjoyed the wines of Napa, he chose some of the most highly rated first-growth Bordeaux in the world with the full intention of having them trounce their California cousins. “I thought I had it rigged for the French wines to win,” Spurrier said.

The common ethos in the wine world before the Judgement of 1976 was that French wine was simply superior. Winemakers claimed France had a unique terroir which could not be replicated. These winemakers believed that French vineyards, due to decades of experienced oenologists who cultivated the land, were unparalleled in excellence. And the rest of the world agreed.

In fact, the idea of Americans competing with French for Viticultural superiority was a notion so ridiculous, that only one reluctant American reporter from Time Magazine attended the event. George Taber was quoted as saying he didn’t want to attend but was talked into it by an acquaintance. As the only journalist in attendance, Taber had free reign to walk around and explore the tasting floor. Additionally, Taber was provided a list of what the judges were tasting, and he managed to capture a few embarrassing quotes on the part of the French: “This is definitely California. It has no nose,” said a judge as he tasted a white Burgundy from Batard Montrachet. And, as they enthusiastically sampled a Napa Valley Chardonnay, he said “Ah, back to France.”

Later on, when the results were released, two Napa wines came out on top in both categories. The Cabernet Sauvignon category was won by Stag’s Leap, beating out some of the oldest and most famous names in Bordeaux, including Haut-Brion. Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay won the other category beating out some of the royalty of white Burgundy.

The impact of the win was enormous. Suddenly, California was right up there with the highest-quality producers of France. Before the tasting, Bo Barret of Chateau Montelena said “You had to pound on distributors’ doors to get your wine tasted. Once they tasted it, the distributors would give you kind of half compliments like, ‘This isn’t bad-for a California wine.” Napa’s wines were even struggling to make it out of the West Coast before the tasting. But the judgement changed everything.

Internationally, Napa began to boom. The clear separation in quality between French and American wine seemingly evaporated overnight. Sales went up. Next thing, real estate in Napa became prime and everyone was buying. Wineries were popping up as the terroir of Napa had been confirmed and Napa was well on its way to becoming the world-wine power as it is known for today.

However, not everyone was convinced. French Master Sommelier Jean Michel Deluc wasn’t persuaded by the tasting “With age, French wines are clearly better,” he argued. “There’s a tight competition until the wines are 10 to 15 years old, but then the French wines take the lead.” Still, after the results were published in Time magazine and read all over America, major figures in French wine turned on Spurrier banning him from major industry events. In the long run, it didn’t hold Spurrier career back as he’s currently an editor for Decanter magazine.

One of the most important revelations that the Judgement of Paris provided was that if Americans could do it, winemakers around the world began to ask, why can’t we? Funny enough, in 2010, some 44 years after the Judgement of Paris, there was a blind tasting in NYC. It featured the palates of 100 of NYC’s top wine experts, critics, sommeliers and personalities. Another New World wine, a Chilean, beat out the best Bordeaux, California-cult and Tuscan wines in attendance. History really has a way of coming full circle.