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Revisiting the Paris Tasting
By Paul Lukacs
May 3, 2016
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It was forty years ago this month that a group of French wine experts misidentified a set of California Cabernets and Chardonnays in a blind tasting as being from Bordeaux and Burgundy, and so ended up with collective egg on their faces.  At the time, hardly anyone paid much attention.  Since then, however, the event has become famous.  Widely referred to today as “The Judgment of Paris,” it has been the subject of both a book and a feature film, with both another movie and (believe it or not) a musical play now in the works.  In France, it has been largely forgotten.  But in the United States, it is repeatedly hailed as a Trump-ian triumph of “America first.”  Given this month’s anniversary, the fanfare has become especially loud recently.  Lost among the hubbub, however, is the story of what really happened--and what it both meant then and means today.

In classical mythology, the original judgment of Paris led to division and strife.  It came when Paris, Prince of Troy, was asked to select the fairest goddess on Olympus.  He chose Aphrodite over Athena and Hera because she bribed him with the promise that he could have the most beautiful woman on earth.  That woman, Helen, happened to be married, and her husband, Menelaus, king of Sparta, was none too pleased when Paris spirited her away with him.  Not surprisingly, he and a whole bunch of his fellow Greek kings and warriors went after them, the result being the Trojan War.

The result of wine’s Parisian judgment has been just the opposite--not reinforced differences between wines from different places, but an increased similarity between them.  The tasting did not signal that California wines were better than French ones.  Rather, it demonstrated that even expert palates could not distinguish between them.  Thus it was an early sign of what over the past four decades has become the single most important phenomenon in the world of wine--globalization. 

The winning Cabernet in Paris was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973, with a score of 14.14 (on a 20-point scale), barely outdistancing Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 at 14.01.  The top ranked Chardonnay, Chateau Montelena 1973, bested Domaine Roulot Meursault-Charmes 1973 by a slightly wider margin.  Why did the upstart Californians win?  The obvious answer is that they were very good wines.  To this, though, one has to add the fact that top-flight Bordeaux and Burgundy at the time were deliberately made to age, not to be enjoyed young.  Still, for the winemakers responsible for the winning wines, Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap and Miljenko “Mike” Grgich at Montelena, the Paris tasting was remarkably gratifying.

To more disinterested observers, though, what remains most remarkable about the event (besides the fact that grade inflation obviously had not yet infected wine judging) was that the experts, to a person, were unable to tell which wines came from where.  They assumed chauvinistically that the ones they liked the most were French and those they liked the least Californian, but they were dead wrong.  A wine that one judge opined had to be Californian because it lacked a bouquet turned out to be a Batard-Montrachet; another that a different judge lambasted for being simple was from Saint-Julien.  On it went--misjudgment following misjudgment, all afternoon long.  George Taber, the only journalist present, was astonished by this.  “I soon realized,” he wrote later, “that the judges were becoming totally confused [during the tasting] . . . .The panel couldn’t tell the difference between the French wines and those from California.  The judges then began talking to each other, which is very rare in a tasting.  They speculated about a wine’s nationality, often disagreeing….They seemed both bewildered and shocked, as if they didn’t quite know what was happening.”

With the advantage of forty years of hindsight, it now is easy to see what was happening.  California wine and French wine were beginning to taste alike.  In 1976, of course, that meant that the Californians resembled the French wines stylistically, red Bordeaux and white Burgundy being the unquestioned benchmarks in terms of character as well as quality at the time.  But while most commentators on the Paris tasting (including George Taber) have focused on the results in terms of quality, in the long run the issue of character is more significant.  Put simply, the wines shared so much in terms of it that they proved indistinguishable.

Odette Kahn, the editor of the magazine La Revue du Vin de France and one of the judges with egg on her face, said as much when she told Taber that “California wines are trying to become too much like French wines.”  But Kahn, who wanted to get her ballot back afterwards and complained that the tasting wasn’t fair, didn’t realize that she was witnessing--or tasting--the future.  The world of wine was simultaneously expanding, with more high quality wines coming from more and more places every year, and shrinking, with many if not most of those wines tasting very similar.

In the decades following the Judgment of Paris, the stylistic pendulum has swung away from the sort of austere French model on display that May, as accessibility rather than longevity has become a principal goal of winemakers all across the globe.  This means that vintners in Bordeaux and Burgundy echo their California counterparts just as often as the other way around.  Add to them winemakers in Australia, Argentina, Chile, South Africa and more, as well as others in Tuscany, Priorat, and different places in Europe, and you can begin to understand what has changed.  Globalization invariably entails some degree of homogenization.
Similar, however, does not mean identical.  In today’s post-Paris judgment era, when high quality wines from many different places share a similar character, the goal of virtually all ambitious winemakers is to produce something that tastes distinctive and so stands out in an extremely crowded field.  Doing so has proved to be a formidable challenge.  The most common method of approaching it involves trying to have the wine one makes express the supposedly unique features of the site where the grapes for it were grown.  Clearly, however, if it has become difficult to distinguish between wines from different regions in different countries, doing so with wines from separate sites within regions has to be even more so.  That is why a great deal of the talk one hears these days about a wine tasting of a place is just hogwash.  Locale is certainly important, but it is just one of many factors involved in giving a wine its identity.

When all is said and done, that is what the judgment of Paris was all about--wine’s identity.  The failure of the judges to recognize what they were tasting signaled that it is a much more complicated concern that anyone then imagined.  Identity does not come simply from tradition, or national origin, or even regional specificity (in the French case, from appellations controlée).  Neither winemaking nor grape growing, sophisticated winery technology nor naked terroir, is by itself responsible for how a wine smells and tastes.  But what exactly the relationship is between those various factors remains a mystery.  And that mystery, as the Parisian judges learned to their chagrin, is why experiencing truly fine wine is so often both joyous and humbling.