The Day California Hit the Wine Map




As a cap tip to the “16th Anniversary Issue” of JO LEE Magazine, I’ll touch on the 40th anniversary this year of the Judgment of Paris where California wines beat the French in a much-heralded contest that started out as a marketing stunt.


Steven Spurrier was a wine merchant in the UK who decided to create an event that would pit newcomer California wines against the greatest wines of France.  His intention as a strictly French wine sales merchant was clear from the outset and California would surely be kicked to the grape strewn curb.  The participants from the U.S. west coast didn’t pay a lot of attention or put much credence on the event but participated as a no-lose proposition with free publicity.  After all, even if they lost to France’s best, who would have expected otherwise?


The California wines included such well-known names as Chateau Montelena, Heitz Cellars, Stag’s Leap and Mayacamas.  Little upstarts including Haut Brion, Mouton-Rothschild, Leoville Las-Cases and Domaine Leflaive represented the French.  It was to the wine world of 1976 the equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters playing an elementary school basketball team.  As a final nail in the soon-to-be-buried coffin, of the 11 judges only two were not French; Spurrier himself and one lone American.  Tipping the scale further, the votes of these two judges would not be counted.  Let the games begin.


As I’m sure you know or can figure out, the Americans won a remarkable victory in a blind taste test of 20 points with judges scoring as they saw fit using whatever criteria they chose.  Of the reds, the 1973 Stag’s Leap came out on top beating first growths and other famous houses of Bordeaux.  Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay topped the Burgundy whites ahead of Roulot’s 1973 Meursault-Charmes. 


The French were up in arms, being beaten on their own soil, at their own game, with their best brands on display.  French judge Odette Kahn, editor of La Revue du Vin de France, in a stunning display of sportsmanship, demanded her ballot be returned, which it was not.  She never spoke to Spurrier again and even wrote an article on the event citing fraud.


While this was a kick in the purple stained teeth of the French wine elite, California reveled in its win and many claim this was the birth of California wine on the world stage.  The American wineries that won saw sales rise exponentially as a result. 


This year, 40th anniversary events and parties are being staged around the world to celebrate what was supposed to be a lopsided battle.  I don’t believe many are being held in France however.

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