The Judgment of Paris has become one of the rare moments in the history of wine that the farther we get from it, the greater its significance seems to become. For those unfamiliar, the verdict was a 1976 blind tasting that set the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy up against the best Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays in a promising but still quite under-the-radar wine region called … wait it: Napa Valley. The judges included some of the most important figures in the world of French wine, and among the great reds tasted were such icons from Bordeaux as Châteaux Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Léoville Las Cases and Montrose. Included in the Chardonnays flight were, among others, Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches, Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles, Ramonet-Prudhon Bâtard-Montrâchet and Roulot Meursault Charmes.
For wine collectors, it’s the kind of bottles that make hearts leap and mouth water. And yet, to everyone’s surprise, Napas’ Chateau Montelena won the top prize among the Chardonnays and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was judged to be the best among the reds. The results were reported in a short piece in Time Magazine by George Taber, and in a relatively quick period, the whole world of wine shook at the very foundation. Taber later wrote an excellent book about it – “The Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and The Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine” – which was later turned into the movie “Bottle Shock.”
The whole endeavor was conceived by Steven Spurrier, then a young British wine merchant at the Academie du Vin in Paris, and his American business partner, Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher. The success of the store and their wine education programs had already made them deeply important and respected figures in the French wine world – they introduced their customers and students to wines they had never before had the opportunity to taste in France – but in 1976 Dom cemented their place in wine history. Both of them have become honored figures in the world of wine – Spurrier sadly died this part of March – and their influence can still be felt today.
I bring this up because it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Paris judgment, and when I first heard about the Napa judgment, which was scheduled to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the French original, I was not sure on what to expect. . But when I found out it was conceived and orchestrated by Angela Duerr, the Napa-based founder of Cultured Vine, which organizes unique wine country tours and events that include the kind of experiences generally reserved for industry professionals and insiders, and then I was made not only with the blessing but also with the help of Spurrier, Gastaud-Gallagher and Taber, I had a feeling it would be something special.
It was more than that. Although the competition itself took place over a single day, October 6, 2021, the event began the day before with an extensive vertical tasting, led by winemaker Marcus Notaro, of six vintages of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Estate-Grown Cabernet Sauvignon Returns to 1987. (I will report on these wines later this week); official recognition of Spurrier, Gastaud-Gallagher and Taber by a resolution from the State of California through Senator Bill Dodd’s office as well as a congressional resolution through Congressman Mike Thompson for their contribution to the growth of the California wine industry; and lots of spectacular wine. A lunch at the winery included a magnum of 2011 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay introduced by the legendary Bo Barrett, a 1997 Freemark Abbey Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon introduced by winemaker Kristy Melton, a 5-liter bottle of Stag’s Leap SLV 1995 introduced by winemaker Marcus Notaro , and a six-liter bottle of Clos du Val from 1979 poured after a discussion by Bernard Portet.
The actual Judgment of Napa competition took place the next day at the historic Charles Krug winery in St. Louis. Helena. After a deeply moving introduction that included recordings of Spurrier, Gastaud-Gallagher, Taber and Duerr, as well as Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson who served as emcee both days, and appearances by Ridge founder Paul Draper; Joanne Dupuy, who is credited with “saving” the original verdict in 1976; Peter Mondavi Jr .; Jean-Charles Boisset; and more, a group of critics, journalists (full disclosure: I was one of them), winemakers and consumers tasted and ranked, all blind, 10 Chardonnays and 10 Cabernet Sauvignons and Cab-based blends. I had the great fortune to sit next to Gastaud-Gallagher, who in himself proved to be a master class in working through the nuances of a wine whose identity was a mystery.
Not knowing the producer or region of each wine forced everyone to consider the liquid in the glass on its own merits, without any of the baggage that we all bring to certain awning names. Although the results were surprising, they ultimately made perfect sense: The winning white, Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, from Margaret River in Western Australia, is a wine that I fell completely in love with when I visited the region in 2017. It vintage that won the Judgment of Napa, 2018, is elegant, intensely layered, impeccably balanced and possesses the structure to age for a long time to come. Even against such acclaimed wines as Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches, Ramonet Bâtard Montrâchet, Kistler Vineyards Vine Hill and Gaja Gaia & Rey, it stood out – both the expert panel and the event panel of judges had the winner.
For the reds, the event panel ranked TOR Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard 2016 best among the Cabs and Cab-based mixes, whereas the expert panel gave the award to Château Léoville Las Cases 2016. Other prominent among the reds were i.a. Cabernets from Scarecrow and Colgin, Ridge Monte Bello, Ornellaia, Château Mouton Rothschild and more.
Among both the whites and reds, the lineups were a who is who of legendary and sought-after bottlings; having the opportunity to taste them all side by side was as instructive as it was delicious. (It must also have been a Herculean effort to gather them all, and in such quantity, in one place.) The whole Napa judgment was not just an eye-opening, impeccably planned and performed tribute to the 1976 original in Paris, but two days , which in itself will be remembered for years to come. It showed that almost half a century later, the quality of wine across the board is as high as ever. And that Napa Valley and Australia, now global wine power plants, of course produce some of the most exciting wines in the world. This is not surprising, but to consider them in a blind tasting is always telling, especially when it is among such legendary bottles from France, Italy and beyond. And having the chance to do so during an event that contextualized the importance of what Spurrier and Gastaud-Gallagher achieved in 1976 made it even more meaningful and insightful.