French vintners are suffering a continuing and dramatic decline in wine consumption among residents of their country. A natural reaction to such a crisis is to call for restrictions, both legislative and cultural/patriotic, on the consumption of wine from other countries. Although such restrictions may help French wine producers, they harm French consumers.
Visiting a French grocery story can illustrate the problem. Want a bottle of Pinotage, for which South Africa is known around the world? Don't expect to find it. Want a delightful Sangiovese from Italy? Look elsewhere. How about a bottle of Zinfandel, California's unique contribution to the world of wine? Better look for it somewhere else. French groceries stock an abundance of French wines. But because France doesn't produce Pinotage, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Tempranillo and many other wines, their restricted availability reduces consumer choice.
But some may say this is natural. Isn't French wine the best in the world? Knowledgeable people haven't believed this myth since the Paris Wine Tasting in 1976, at which time French wines were pitted against California wines, in that tasting, a California red took first place and California Chardonnays won first, third and fourth place in the white wine category. And many other countries around the world similarly produce award-winning wines as well. (Details of the Paris Wine Tasting in 1976 are found below.)
Automaker Henry Ford is reputed to have said that customers could buy any color Ford car they wanted so long as it was black. The attitude of French wine producers similarly seems to be "if we don't produce it, you don't need it." Unfortunately, it's the innocent French consumer who is deprived of choice.
French wines were generally believed by most people to be the very best wines in the world until 1976. In 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 were 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
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
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
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:
|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|
|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 XXX 10|
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.
|1||California||Clos Du Val Winery 1972|
|2||California||Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello|
|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|
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' 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:
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
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:
|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
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:
|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 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.
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
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!
* 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).
*** A California winemaker has reported that the tasting results and the subsequent publicity about them provoked anger, animosity and bitterness among some in France. “Afterwards I received several letters from members of the French wine industry saying that the queer results of the 1976 tasting were a fluke. In essence, their letters argued that 'everyone knows' French wines are better than California wines 'in principle' and always will be." (Winiarski, Warren. Zut alors! The French like California wine. Wines & Vines, April 1991, 72(4), 28.
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