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Historic Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 and Other Significant Competitions

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976

Beginning in the 1960s, a number of winemakers in California aspired to create wines that could rival the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, which they so greatly admired. These wines were their standards of excellence, which they bought, drank, studied, and emulated.

By the early 1970s, some had produced wines that they believed were outstanding, but had great difficulty marketing them, even the United States. The favorable results of some early competitions were discredited and discounted by the wine world. Although the competitions were blind (that is, the tasters didn‘t know the identity or origin of the wines they evaluated), the argument was that the judges somehow knew which wines they were tasting and were biased. Another argument was that the quality of the French wines was reduced in transit across the ocean.

However, the situation dramatically changed in 1976.

That year an English wine merchant in Paris, Steven Spurrier, organized a Paris Wine Tasting. Spurrier also ran a wine school and hoped to gain publicity on the occasion of the U.S. Bicentennial. Since his livelihood depended largely on the sale of fine French wines (he sold no other), his idea was to conduct a tasting that would clearly illustrate the superiority of French wines over those of California, capitalizing on the attention California wines were receiving during the Bicentennial. But just to ensure the result he expected and wanted. Spurrier said "I thought I had it rigged for the French wines to win." 1

The jury of nine tasters consisted of the creme de la creme of France's wine tasting experts. They included famous culinary writers and the secretary general of the Association des Grands Crus Classes. * The tasting was done blind, so that none of the judges knew what was being poured.

First to be tasted were white wines. The comparison was with Chardonnay - matching the very best French Chardonnays (Burgundy) against California Chardonnays. The winner was a California Chardonnay, to the shock of all present. Third and fourth place also went to Californian Chardonnays.

The red wines were then tasted. Spurrier knew that the California white had won and panicked. Desperately hoping the French would win this round, Spurrier admits he informed the judges that not only had they chosen a Californian wine for the top prize, but that three out of four of the top whites had been Californian. Since many wine drinkers consider red wines to be of even more importance than white, the French tasters were even more determined to choose a French red for the winner this time around.

The tasting then continued. The tasters, sure they could pick out the wineries, began to make disparaging remarks about some of the "lesser quality US wines." ** When the results were unveiled a California wine had again won top honors, to the chagrin of the wine experts. One of the judges actually demanded unsuccessfully that her ballot be given back to her. 2

One observer has emphasized that

It wasn't just that the California wines took first place in each category, but that they placed so many wines in the upper echelon of each category. It was so utterly improbable that skilled French tasters, suckled on Bordeaux red and white Burgundies, should not only fail to recognize their own wines, but actually express so strong and concerted a preference for those of the New World. 3

The French tried to prevent publicity of the results, but Spurrier had invited a reporter for Time magazine to the event, who promptly revealed the results to the world. Leaders of the of French wine industry was so outraged they banned Spurrier from the nation's prestige wine-tasting tour for a year as punishment for the damage his prestigious tasting had done to its former image of superiority. 4 Some French even vented their hostility toward American wine makers. ***

The New York Times reported that several earlier tastings had occurred in the U.S., with American Chardonnays besting their French rivals. One such tasting occurred in New York just six months before the Paris Tasting, but "champions of the French wines argued that the tasters were Americans with possible bias toward American wines. What is more, they said, there was always the possibility that the Burgundies had been mistreated during the long trip from the (French) wineries. To which The Times posed the question, "What can they say now?" The judges consisted entirely of the leaders of the French wine establishment. 5

San Francisco Wine Tasting of 1978

The San Francisco Wine Tasting of 1978 was conducted 20 months after the historic Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. Steven Spurrier flew in from Paris to participate in the evaluations, which were held at the Vintners Club.

On January 11, ninety-eight evaluators blind tasted the same Chardonnays earlier tasted in Paris. The 1974 Chalone Winery was ranked the highest, the 1973 Chateau Montelena came in second, followed by the 1973 Spring Mountain Vineyard. In fourth place was the 1972 Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive. Ranking lower were Meursault Charmes Roulot 1973, Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin 1973, and Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon 1973.

On January 12, ninety-nine evaluators blind tasted the same Cabernet Sauvignons earlier tasted in Paris. The 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars again won first place. It was followed by the 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s vineyard in second place and the 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello in third place. In fourth place was the 1970 Château Mouton Rothschild. Ranking lower were Château Montrose 1970, Château Haut-Brion 1970, and Château Leoville Las Cases 1971. 6

Wine Olympics of 1979

A Wine Olympics was organized by the French food and wine magazine GaultMillau in 1979, three years after the historic Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. A total of 330 wines from 33 countries were evaluated by 62 experts from ten nationalities. France dominated in both the number of wine entries and in the number of judges.

The 1976 Trefethen Vineyards Chardonnay from the Napa Valley won the Chardonnay tasting and was judged best in the world. Wines from California won six of the top ten ranks in the Chardonnay judging. In the important Cabernet-Merlot blends category, California wines won six of the top ten ranks. In the Pinot Noir competition, the 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Reserve from Oregon won first place and the 1975 Hoffman Ranch from California won third place. 7

The Ottawa Wine Tasting of 1981

Five years after the Paris tasting, New York Times wine critic Terry Robards noted that “American wines are often challenging French wines in tasting competitions these days, and the results often suggest that certain carefully chosen California wine are superior to the best that France can offer.” 8

One of the most significant subsequent blind tastings was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Ottawa on January 18, 1981. It was on ‘neutral territory” and pitted wines from California against those from France. Unlike the Paris tasting, a straight-up competition was held between French and American cabernet sauvignons.

The California competitors were the major wineries that were willing to donate a case of wine. The French wines were purchased. The presiding official was a Judge of the Court of Peace of Quebec, and the panel of ten tasters consisted of American and Canadian experts, including two prominent French-Canadians from Quebec. Efforts to get a French judge were unsuccessful. The tasting was not just blind, but double-blind (the servers didn't know what they were serving). Major American and French newspapers were invited to attend, but only the local press was there. Although Terry Robards did not attend the event, he reported the event to a large readership through his “Wine Talk“ column in the New York Times.

Robards wrote that “Thirteen wines were involved, and California swept the first five places, defeating Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Haut-Brion, all from the excellent Bordeaux vintage of 1970.” 9 These are all First Growths (Premiers Crus) as established by the Official Bordeaux Classification of 1855 and are France's finest.

These were the results:

Place Region Wine
1 California Sterling Vineyards Reserve cabernet sauvignon 1974
2 California Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon 1970
3 California Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard cabernet sauvignon 1974
4 California Beaulieu Vineyards George de Latour Private Reserve 1974
4 (tie) California Stag’s Leap Vineyards cabernet sauvignon 1974
6 Bordeaux Ducru-Beaucaillou 1970
7 Bordeaux Chateau Latour 1970
8 Bordeaux Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1970
9 California Robert Mondavi cabernet sauvignon 1975
10 California Freemark Abbey Cabernet Bosche 1974
11 Bordeaux Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970
12 Bordeaux Chateau Margaux 1970
13 Bordeaux Chateau Haut-Brion 1970 10

The French Culinary Institute Wine Tasting of 1986

The French Culinary Institute Wine Tasting of 1986 was conducted on the tenth anniversary of the historic Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. Steven Spurrier, who organized the latter event, assisted in the anniversary tasting.

Eight judges blind tasted nine of the ten wines evaluated. Inexplicably, Freemark Abbey Winery was not included. White wines were not evaluated in the belief that they were past their prime. The evaluation resulted in the following ranking.

Rank Region Wine
1 California Clos Du Val Winery 1972
2 California Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello
3 France Château Montrose
4 France Château Leoville Las Cases 1971
5 France Château Mouton Rothschild 1970
6 California Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973
7 California Heitz Wine Cellars 1970
8 California Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
9 France Château Haut-Brion XXXX 11

Wine Spectator Wine Tasting of 1986

The Wine Spectator Wine Tasting of 1986 was also conducted on the tenth anniversary of the Paris event by Wine Spectator magazine. It provided an opportunity to evaluate how the Cabernet Sauvignons had aged; again, Chardonnays were not included in the belief that they would be past their prime.

Four of the judges were experts from the Wine Spectator and two were outsiders. All tasted the wines blind. Ranking first was the 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard. It was followed by the 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards, the 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello, the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and the 1971 Clos Du Val Winery. Ranked at number six was the 1971 Château Montrose, followed by the 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild, the 1971 Château Leoville Las Cases, the 1969 Freemark Abbey Winery, and the 1970 Château Haut-Brion. 12

The Halekulani Wine Tasting of 2000

The ''Halekulani Wine Tasting of 2000' was organized by Artisans & Estates at the Halekulani Hotel in Hawaii. Sixty wine experts evaluated 17 wines "double-blind." That is, neither the tasters nor the servers knew the identity of the wines being evaluated.

The highest scoring wine was Kendall-Jackson "Cardinale" 1996, a Cabernet Sauvignon blend from California. In second place was Opus One 1995 from California, while third place was won by Château Lafite-Rothschild 1996 of Bordeaux. Among the winners, there was an inverse relationship between high rank and cost. The Kendall-Jackson retailed for just over $100, the Opus One was about $125, whereas the lowest ranking cost over $150. 13

The wines that were tasted are listed alphabetically:

The Berlin Wine Tasting of 2004

In early 2004, a professional blind tasting was held in Berlin with 36 tasters drawn from European wine journalists and wine buyers. The tasters evaluated two vintages each of eight top wines from France, Italy and Chile.

The first and second place wines were two Cabernet-based reds from Chile: Viñedo Chadwick 2000 and Seña 2001. They outscored two of Bordeaux's best: Château Lafite and Château Margaux. The French wines cost about $275 a bottle whereas the Chilean winners cost only a fraction of that. 14

The St. Catherines Wine Tasting of 2005

A blind tasting of four named growth Bordeaux and twelve Ontario cabernet and cabernet blends was held at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario, on February 27, 2005.

The fifty judges were wine writers, wine educators, vintners, and certified wine judges. They ranked the wines as follows:

Place Region Wine
1 Ontario Colio "Carlo Negri Signature" Cabernet-Merlot 1999
2 Ontario Thirty Bench Benchmark Blend 1998
3 Ontario Stoney Ridge Cabernet Franc-Merlot 1995
4 Ontario Cave Spring Cellars Cabernet-Merlot 1998
5 Ontario Henry of Pelham Cabernet-Merlot Unfiltered 1998
6 Bordeaux Chateau Branaire-Ducru, Bordeaux 1999
7 Bordeaux Chateau De Camensac, Bordeaux 2000
8 Ontario Konzelmann Cabernet-Merlot Reserve 1998
9 Ontario Inniskillin "Klose Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon 1995
10 Ontario Reif "First Growth" Cabernet 2001
11 Bordeaux Chateau Lynch-Moussas, Bordeaux 1996
12 Bordeaux Chateau Haut-Bages Liberal, Bordeaux 1995
13 Ontario Hernder Cabernet Sauvignon Unfiltered (500 ml) 1999
14 Ontario Chateau des Charmes Cabernet-Merlot 1999
15 Ontario “Little Fat Wino” 2003 Landot Noir/2000 Cabernet Sauvignon (amateur)
16 Ontario Cilento Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1999

The third-ranking entry (an Ontario wine) cost $14.95 whereas the 12th-ranking entry (a Bordeaux wine) cost $85.00. 15

Ottawa Wine Tasting of 2005

The Ottawa Wine Tasting of 2005 was sponsored by the Vendange Institute of Ottawa and included 35 expert tasters. A total of 18 wines were evaluated blind: six each from Bordeaux, Ontario and British Columbia. Conduct of the professional tasting was monitored by Sopex, an organization responsible for marketing French wines.

These were the results:

Place Region Wine
1 British Columbia Cedar Ridge Platinum Reserve Meritage 2002
2 Ontario Colio CEV Reserve Merlot 2000
3 Bordeaux Chateau Lascombes 2000
4 British Columbia Sumac Ridge Pinnacle 2001
5 British Columbia Burrowing Owl Meritage 2002
6 Bordeaux Chateau Pontet-Canet 2001
7 British Columbia Osoyoos Larose 2002
8 Ontario Stoney Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
9 Bordeaux Chateau Rauzan-Gassies 2000
10 Bordeaux Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron 2001
11 Ontario Fielding Estates Reserve Cabernet-Merlot 2002
12 Ontario Lakeview Cellars Cabernet-Merlot 1998
13 British Columbia Mission Hill Oculus 2002
14 Bordeaux Chateau Brane-Cantenac 2001
15 Bordeaux Chateau la Tour-du-Pin-Figeac 2001
16 Ontario Thirty Bench Blend 1998
17 British Columbia Fairview Cellars Bear’s Meritage 2000
18 Ontario Cave Spring Cabernet-Merlot 2002

Wine prices ranged from $25 to $109 per bottle. Two Canadian wines costing $25 placed second and seventh, whereas a Bordeaux costing $109 ranked 10th. 16

The Ignored Tastings Before the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976

New York Wine Tasting of 1973

The New York Wine Tasting of 1973 was organized by pioneering alcohol journalist Robert Lawrence Balzer. He assembled 14 leading wine experts including France’s Alexis Lichine, who owned two Chateaux in Bordeaux, a manager of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, and Sam Aaron, a prominent New York wine merchant. They evaluated 23 Chardonnays from California, New York, and France in a blind tasting before an assemblage of 250 members of the New York Food and Wine Society.

The group was very surprised when California Chardonnays received the top four scores. Fifth place went to the 1969 Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin. Other French wines in the competition were the 1970 Corton-Charlemagne Louis Latour, the 1971 Pouilly-Fuisse Louis Jadot, and the 1970 Chassagne-Montrachet Marquis de Laguiceh Joseph Drouhin. News of the tasting didn’t travel much beyond a small circle of wine connoisseurs.

San Diego Wine Tasting of 1975

Similarly, in 1975, twenty-eight experienced wine tasters rated eight Bordeaux wines and two California Cabernets from the 1970 vintage. Heitz Martha’s Vineyard from California ranked number one. Tying for second place were Chateau Latour and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The blind judges were all American and the few people paid much attention to the results.

However, this would soon all change. Results of the subsequent Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 couldn’t be ignored or explained away and led to a revolution in the world of wine. 17

The World of Wine Today

Much has happened since the Paris Wine Tasting. World class wines are now being produced in many countries around the world. Wine makers continue to explore new areas for vineyards, new vineyard techniques, improved technology for enhancing quality during fermentation, and better ageing methods. In turn, French winemakers no longer rely on tradition but have joined the wine revolutions to the benefit of consumers everywhere.

Because of the Paris Wine Tasting and its revolutionary effects, most consumers are more concerned about the wine in the bottle than the country of origin listed on the label. Merci, Paris!

Important Note on Wine Competitions

The most common form of wine competition is one in which awards are given to groups of wines in various winning categories on the basis of blind tasting. The awards are frequently bronze, silver gold, and double gold medals. It is not uncommon for one-third or more of the wines competing to be awarded medals. Some critical observers compare the results to "grade inflation."

Such competitions tend to be organized by wineries, their trade associations, or entrepreneurs. They are popular with producers and sellers because there are many winners and the medals are useful in marketing their products.

The other form of competition, of which there have been only a few, is most often organized by wine lovers and is consumer-oriented. Its goal is not to help market wine but to evaluate its quality. The judges also evaluate the wines blind. However, instead of giving numerous awards, the wines are ranked by number from high to low in each wine category, a process known as ordinal ranking. Thus, there is only one first place winner, one second place, one third place, and so on down to the lowest place. If 12 wines are evaluated, they are ranked from one to 12, although ties may occur.

The latter form of competition is often preferred by wine lovers. Producers often disassociate themselves from them because there can only be one winner in each category. Typically, there are only two categories, which are red and white wines.

The wine tastings described in this article are all the known competitions of the latter type.

 

Footnotes on the Paris Wine Tasting

* The judges at the tasting were Pierre Brejoux, Inspector General of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine Controllee; Michel Dovaz of the Institut Oenologique de France; Aubert de Villaine, co-director of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti; Claude Dubois-Millot, commercial director of Le Nouveau Guide, a popular gastronomic magazine; Odette Kahn, director of the prestigious Revue du Vin de France; Pierre Tari, proprietor of Chateau Giscours; Raymond Oliver, owner of the restaurant Le Grand Vefour; Jean Claude Vrinat, owner of the restaurant Taillevent, and Christian Vanneque, wine steward at the restaurant La Tour d'Argent" (Prial, Frank J. Wine talk: California labels outdo French in blind test. The New York Times, June 9, 1976.)

** Time magazine described the tasting: "'Ah, back to France!' exclaimed Oliver after sipping a 1972 Chardonnay from the Napa Valley. 'That is definitely a California. It has no nose,' said another judge - after downing a (French) Batard-Montrachet '73. Other comments included such Gallic gems as 'this is nervous and agreeable,' 'a good nose but not too much in the mouth,' (describing French wines) and 'this soars out of the ordinary' (describing a California wine)" (Taber, George. Judgment of Paris, Time, June 7, 1976, parentheses added).

References and Readings

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