Was there ever a better job? In the mid-1970s, I was a correspondent for Time magazine in Paris.” So begins Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. Don’t worry, the book itself is much more readable and enticing than the clumsy title suggests.
In 1976, George M. Taber was indeed an American journalist for Time in Paris. As such, he found himself'surprisingly, in retrospect'the only journalist to be present at the dramatic and now famous 1976 Paris wine tasting that pitched California wines against some of the esteemed red Bordeaux and white Burgundies of France. It’s hard to fathom 30 years later how only one journalist happened to be present at such a significant event. In part, it suggests both how little recognition California wines received at that time and how little the worldwide press cared about them.
If you don’t know the story recounted in George M. Taber’s Judgment of Paris, in a nutshell, it goes like this. In 1976, a British wine merchant in Paris named Steven Spurrier'owner of the Caves de la Madeleine wine shop'organized and hosted a wine face-off of sorts between the aforementioned French and California wines at Paris’ fashionable InterContinental Hotel. In this blind wine tasting, the panel of judges'all of whom were French wine experts and said to be blatant chauvinists about French wine'gave the top two prizes to American wines: a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena. Taber wrote his account of the Paris tasting the following week, which sent shockwaves throughout the wine world. Things haven’t been quite the same since.
What’s so well-done in Taber’s book'a must-have holiday gift for wine enthusiasts'is the placement of this important wine event within its larger historical context. Sure, there’s lots of detail about the infamous tasting itself. But in Judgment of Paris, the reader is also treated to both a swift history of the (mostly) French-controlled European wine trade, along with an in-depth look at American winemaking efforts and experiments.
Aside from merely being a delicious trip down memory lane, Taber’s book also documents what happened after the Paris tasting. This single event and the doors it opened for American wines transformed the wine industry, not just in this country but throughout the world. Taber suggests that the fallout from the Paris tasting he attended and reported on sparked a “golden age” of viticulture, with tentacles that reach today to places like Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and around the planet.
It would have been easy for Taber’s book to turn out a deadly bore, but it’s not. In fact, his writing style is intriguing, somewhere between a good mystery and a historical novel. The book is refreshingly free of wine-geek jargon and technicalities; it will appeal to wine experts and curious readers alike. His description of the moment when he realized the French judges were beginning to favor the California wines is down-to-earth and humorous: “About halfway through the white wine part of the competition, I began to notice something quite shocking. I had a list of the wines and realized that the judges were getting confused! They were identifying a French wine as a California one and vice versa. Judges at one end of the tables were insisting that a particular wine was French, while those at the other were saying it was from California. A publisher of French food and wine books and magazines tasted another white wine and said with great confidence, â€˜That is definitely California. It has no nose.’ But the wine was really a 1973 BÃ¢tard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, one of Burgundy’s finest products.â€
Any wine lover will appreciate uncorking Judgment of Paris this holiday season.