Judgement of Paris: Historic Paris Wine Tasting of 1976.

The Judgement of Paris (historic Paris wine tasting of 1976) was a world-shaking event. It forever changed the world of wine.

Before the Judgement of Paris, wine authorities largely agreed on one fact. Specifically, many places around the world could make good wine. However, only in France could people make great wine.

              OVERVIEW

I.   Judgement of Paris

II.  Ignored Tastings Before Judgement of Paris

III. Tastings After Judgement of Paris

IV. World of Wine Today

V.   Resources: Judgement of Paris

I. Judgement of Paris

Beginning in the 1960s, a number of winemakers in California aspired to create great wines. Ones that could rival the great wines of France. These wines were their standards of excellence. They bought, drank, studied, and emulated them.

By the early 1970s, some had made wines they thought were outstanding. However, they had great problems selling them. Even within the U.S. But the wine world discounted the results of these tests. Yet the tastings were blind. That is, the tasters didn‘t know the identity or origin of the wines they evaluated.

Somehow, the argument was that the judges knew which wines they were tasting. And that they had bias. Another argument was that the long transit had reduced the quality of the French winest.

However, the situation dramatically changed in 1976.

That year an English wine merchant in Paris, Steven Spurrier, organized a Paris wine tasting. We now call it the Judgement of Paris. Spurrier also ran a wine school and hoped to gain publicity on the occasion of the U.S. Bicentennial. His livelihood depended on the sale of French wines. In fact, he sold no other.

Judgement of ParisSo his idea was to have a tasting that would clearly prove the superiority of French wines. He would use the attention California wines got during the Bicentennial. Spurrier wanted and expected the French wines to win. Of course, everybody else did. But just to ensure the result, Spurrier said “I thought I had it rigged for the French wines to win.”

The jury of nine tasters were France’s very top experts. The judges tasted the wines blind. Thus, they didn’t know what they were tasting.

The Tasting

Judges first tasted the white wines. It was Chardonnay. The very best French Chardonnays against California Chardonnays. The winner was a California Chardonnay. It was a shock to all present. Third and fourth place also went to Californian Chardonnays.

Next, the judges tasted the red wines. Spurrier knew that the California white had won and panicked. He desperately hoped the French would win this round. Spurrier admits he informed the judges that they had chosen a Californian wine for the top prize. Not only that, but that three out of four of the top whites had been Californian.

judgement of Paris
Tasting wines at the Judgment of Paris.

Most wine drinkers consider red wines to be of even more importance than white. Therefore, the French tasters were even more determined to choose a French red as the winner.

The tasting then continued. The tasters began to make disparaging remarks about some of the “lesser quality US wines.”

Time magazine described the Judgement of Paris. “‘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).”

Again a California wine 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

A Triumph

One observer has emphasized that

judgement of Paris
The winners (Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap).

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…should fail to recognize their own wines. Instead, they actually express a strong and concerted preference for those of the New World.3

ANOTHER BATTLE NOW! Discover the controversy over two films about the Judgement of Paris. See V. Below for more.

The French also tried to prevent publicity of the results. But Spurrier had invited a reporter for Time magazine to the event. That person, George Taber, revealed the results to the world.

This outraged the French wine industry. So it banned Spurrier from the nation’s prestige wine-tasting tour. That was punishment for the damage his Judgement of Paris did to France’s former image of superiority.4 Some French even vented their hostility toward American vintners. People fire-bombed a store that dared to sell American wine.

II. Ignored Tastings Before the Judgement of Paris

The New York Times reported that several earlier tastings had occurred in the U.S. And that California Chardonnays beat their French rivals. One such tasting occurred in New York just six months before the Judgement of Paris.

However, “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 were the leaders of French wine.5

New York Wine Tasting of 1973

A pioneering alcohol journalist organized the New York Wine Tasting of 1973. It was Robert Lawrence Balzer. He assembled 14 leading wine experts. They included France’s Alexis Lichine. He 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. Members of the New York Food and Wine Society observed.

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 Laguice 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 expert 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. Therefore, few people paid much attention to the results.

However, this would soon all change. People couldn’t ignore the results of the later Judgment of Paris. Nor could they explain it away. Thus, it led to a revolution in the world of wine.17

III. Wine Tastings After the Judgement of Paris

San Francisco Wine Tasting of 1978

The San Francisco Wine Tasting of 1978 occured 20 months after the Judgement of Paris. Steven Spurrier came from Paris to participate in the tasting. The Vintners Club was the location.

On January 11, ninety-eight evaluators blind tasted the same Chardonnays earlier tasted in Paris. Judges ranked the 1974 Chalone Winery 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.

The next day, ninety-nine evaluators blind tasted the same Cabernet Sauvignons earlier tasted in Paris. The 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars again won first place. In second place the 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s vineyard. The 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello was in third place. In fourth place was the 1970 Château Mouton Rothschild. Ranking with it was Chateau Montrose 1970.  In fifth place was Chateau Haut-Brion 1970. And Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971 came in last.6

Wine Olympics of 1979

The French food and wine magazine GaultMillau sponsored a Wine Olympics in 1979. That was three years after the Judgement of Paris. Experts (62) from ten nationalities tasted a total of 330 wines from 33 countries. France led in the number of wine entries. It also dominated in the number of judges.

The Judgement of Paris judged 1976 Napa Valley Trefethen Vineyards Chardonnay the 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. 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

The Four Seasons Hotel in Ottawa was the place of the blind tasting. The date was January 18, 1981. It was on ‘neutral territory” and pitted wines from California against those from France. Unlike the Judgement of Paris, a straight-up competition was between French and American cabernet sauvignons.

The California competitors were the major wineries that were willing to donate a case of wine. However, sponsors had to buy the French wines. The presiding official was a Judge of the Court of Peace of Quebec. A panel of ten tasters consisted of American and Canadian experts. Included were two prominent French-Canadians from Quebec. No French judge would agree. The tasting was not just blind, but double-blind. That is, the servers didn’t know what they were serving.

Sponsors invited major American and French newspapers to attend. However, only the local press was there. Terry Robards reported the event to a large readership. That was through his “Wine Talk“ column in the New York Times.

Robards wrote that judges tasted thirteen wines. “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. Therefore, they are France’s finest.

Results

These were the results:

PlaceRegionWine
1CaliforniaSterling Vineyards Reserve cabernet sauvignon 1974
2     “Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon 1970
3     “Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1974
4     “Beaulieu Vineyards George de Latour 1974
4 (tie)     “Stag’s Leap Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1974
6BordeauxDucru-Beaucaillou 1970
7     “Chateau Latour 1970
8     “Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1970
9CaliforniaRobert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1975
10     “Freemark Abbey Cabernet Bosche 1974
11BordeauxChateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970
12     “Chateau Margaux 1970
13     “Chateau Haut-Brion 1970 10

The French Culinary Institute Wine Tasting of 1986

On the tenth anniversary of the Judgement of Paris, the French Culinary Institute held a tasting. Steven Spurrier assisted in the anniversary tasting.

Eight judges blind tasted nine of the ten wines evaluated. Inexplicably, Freemark Abbey Winery was absent. On the other hand, white wines were absent because they were past their prime. The test resulted in the following ranking.

RankRegionWine
1CaliforniaClos Du Val Winery 1972
2     “Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello
3FranceChâteau Montrose
4     “Château Leoville Las Cases 1971
5     “Château Mouton Rothschild 1970
6CaliforniaStag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
7     “Heitz Wine Cellars 1970
8     “Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
9FranceChâteau Haut-Brion 197211

Wine Spectator Wine Tasting of 1986

The Wine Spectator Wine Tasting of 1986 was also on the tenth anniversary of the Paris event. It provided an opportunity to evaluate how the Cabernet Sauvignons had aged. Again, Chardonnays were absent because they were past their prime.

Four of the judges were experts from the Wine Spectator. Two were outside expets. All tasted the wines blind.

Ranking first was the 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard. The 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards was second  and the 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello was third. Then came the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, and the 1971 Clos Du Val Winery. The 1971 Chateau Montrose was number six. The 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild followed. Next was the 1971 Chateau Leoville Las Cases, then the 1969 Freemark Abbey Winery. At the bottom was the 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion.12

The Halekulani Wine Tasting of 2000

The Halekulani Wine Tasting of 2000′ was organized by Artisans & Estates. Hawaii’s Halekulani Hotel was the location. Sixty wine experts tasted 17 wines “double-blind.” That is, neither the tasters nor the servers knew the identity of the wines.

The highest scoring wine was Kendall-Jackson 1996, a Cabernet Sauvignon blend from California. In second place was Opus One 1995 from California. Third place was Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1996 of Bordeaux. Among the winners, there was an inverse relationship between high rank and cost. That is, the higher the price, the lower the rank. For example, the Kendall-Jackson retailed for just over $100. The Opus One was about $125, whereas the lowest ranking cost over $150. 13

This is a random list of the wines.

  • Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1996
  • Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 1995
  • Chateau Latour 1996
  • Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
  • Chateau Haut-Brion 1996
  • Kendall-Jackson 1996
  • Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1996
  • Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
  • Chateau Margaux 1996
  • Lokoya, Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 1995
  • Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1995
  • Opus One 1995
  • Peter Michael 1996
  • Chateau Petrus (about $600) 1995
  • Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
  • Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
  • Stonestreet 1996

The Berlin Wine Tasting of 2004

Berlin was the location of a professional blind tasting in 2004. The 36 tasters were European wine experts. The tasters judged two vintages each of eight top wines. They are from France, Italy and Chile.

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

The St. Catherines Wine Tasting of 2005

Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario, hosted a blind tasting in 2005. Judges tasted four named growth Bordeaux and twelve Ontario cabernet and cabernet blends. The Bordeaux were among France’s very, very best.

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

PlaceRegionWine
1OntarioColio  Cabernet-Merlot 1999
2     “Thirty Bench Benchmark Blend 1998
3     “Stoney Ridge Cabernet Franc-Merlot 1995
4     “Cave Spring Cellars Cabernet-Merlot 1998
5     “Henry of Pelham Cabernet-Merlot 1998
6BordeauxChateau Branaire-Ducru 1999
7     “Chateau De Camensac 2000
8OntarioKonzelmann Cabernet-Merlot 1998
9     “Inniskillin “Klose Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon 1995
10     “Reif  Cabernet 2001
11BordeauxChateau Lynch-Moussas 1996
12     “Chateau Haut-Bages Liberal 1995
13OntarioHernder Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
14BordeauxChateau Margaux 1996
15Ontario“Little Fat Wino” 2003 Landot Noir -Cabernet Sauvignon (amateur)
16     “Cilento Cabernet Sauvignon 1999

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

Ottawa Wine Tasting of 2005

The Vendange Institute of Ottawa sponsored he Ottawa Wine Tasting of 2005. It included 35 expert tasters. Judges blind-tasted 18 wines. There were six each from Bordeaux, Ontario and British Columbia. Sopex, an organization marketing French wines, monitored the event.

These were the results:

PlaceRegionWine
1British ColumbiaCedar Ridge Meritage 2002.
2OntarioColio Merlot 2000.
3BordeauxChateau Lascombes 2000.
4British ColumbiaSumac Ridge Pinnacle 2001.
5     “Burrowing Owl Meritage 2002.
6BordeauxChateau Pontet-Canet 2001.
7British ColumbiaOsoyoos Larose 2002.
8OntarioStoney Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 1998.
9BordeauxChateau Rauzan-Gassies 2000.
10     “Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron 2001.
11OntarioFielding Estates Cabernet-Merlot 2002.
12     “Lakeview Cellars Cabernet-Merlot 1998.
13British ColumbiaMission Hill Oculus 2002.
14BordeauxChateau Brane-Cantenac 2001.
15     “Chateau la Tour-du-Pin-Figeac 2001.
16OntarioThirty Bench Blend 1998.
17British ColumbiaFairview Cellars Bear’s Meritage 2000.
18OntarioCave 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

30 Year Replication of The Judgement of Paris

In 2006 there was a thirty year replication of the Judgement of Paris. Both London and Napa held the event. The judges were an international group of wine experts.

Apologists for the results of the 1976 event said French reds need time to develop. Thus, they would become better. On the other hand, the California wines would fade.

However, the wine experts found otherwise. In fact, they ranked the top reds to California vintners. Thus, they ranked all the French wines in the bottom half of rankings. So, in fact, it was the California wines that improved. On the other hand, it was the French wines that faded.19

In subsequent years the pattern has continued around the world with almost boring repitition.

IV. The World of Wine Today

Much has happened since the Judgement of Paris. Many countries around the world now make world class wine. Vintners continue to explore new areas for vineyards. New vineyard techniques. Improved technology for enhancing wine quality. And better ageing methods. In turn, French winemakers no longer rely on tradition. But they have joined the wine revolution. This benefits wine drinkers.

Because of the Judgement of Paris, knowledgeable consumers are more concerned about wine quality than country of origin. Merci, Paris!

Important Note on Wine Competitions

Most wine competition give awards to wines in various categories based on blind tasting. The awards are frequently bronze, silver gold, and double gold medals. Competitions often award medals to one-third or more of the wines. This may be wine’s answer to “grade inflation.”

Wineries or their trade groups prefer such competitions. They’re popular with both producers and sellers. That’s because there are many winners. Of course, the medals are useful in marketing.

Wine lovers tend to prefer the other form of competition.  Its goal is not to help market wine. Rather, to judge quality. Naturally,  judges also taste the wines blind.

Instead of giving numerous awards, the the judges rank wines by number from high to low in each wine category. Thus, there is only one first place winner, one second place, and so on down. If they taste 12 wines, they rank them from one to 12. However, they may have ties.

Wine lovers prefer the latter form of competition. Producers tend to dislike them. That’s because there can only be one winner in each category.  Of course, that doesn’t help sales!

V. Resources: Judgement of Paris

Films/Videos

The Judgement of Paris. 2021 (documentary). The major figures play themselves.

Bottle Shock. 2008 (comedy-drama).

The Judgement of Paris and American Wine. Discussion with Spurrier, Taber, and some of the prize-winning winemakers.

The Wine Lover Meltdown that Changed the Wine World Forever.

Readings

References

1. Taber, G. Judgment of Paris. California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. NY: Scribner, 2005.

2. Ibid.

3. Hinkle, R. The Paris tasting revisited. Wines & Vines, Aug. 1996, 77(8), 32-34.

4. Peterson, T. Blind Taste Test 25 Years Ago in Paris inadvertently launched California’s fine wine industry. Bus Week, May 8, 2001

5. Prial, F. Wine talk. California labels outdo French in blind test. New York Times, June 9, 1976.

6. Taber, G. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Robards, T. Again, California wine defeats French in a blind taste test. New York Times, Jan. 21, 1981.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Taber, G. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Caparoso, R. Paris 1976 Revisited. Wine & Food Advisory, Jan 14, 2000.

15. Schreiner, J. Millenium tasting. Kelowna Cour, Oct 22, 2005.

16. Us vs. Them. The Frugal Oneophile website, May 2005 issue.

17. Phillips, R. Battle of the bottles. Ottawa Cit, Oct 19, 2005. Schreiner, J. Millenium tasting. Kelowna Cour, Oct 22, 2005.

18. Taber, G. Ibid.

19. Murphy, L. Judgment day. SF Chron