Judgment of Paris

Readers, I'm still taking a bit of a mini-break from writing, so for this week I'll run one more post from Casual Kitchen's archives. Today's post is a fun one that shows how "experts" sometimes know a lot less than they think. 

Once again, thank you for all your support!

The Judgment of Paris

Today's post is about a 1976 winetasting competition that made a roomful of French wine judges look like fools.

It used to be an article of faith among wine experts that the world's greatest wine came from one place: France. Back in the 1970s, for example, winegrowing regions like Napa and Sonoma California were thought of as producers of decent jug wines and not much more. And if you were to flip through a typical wine guide back then, you'd see barely any mention of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand or Chile.

Never mind that several leading winemakers in California were already making world-class wine. Nobody knew or cared. The best wines came from France, and that was that. This was the received wisdom of the world's wine authorities.

Until 1976. That's when a minor British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier held a winetasting event that changed everything. Spurrier was looking to publicize a Paris-based wine store he had recently purchased, and he dreamed up a seemingly ridiculous idea: invite a group of well-known French judges to blind taste France's best wines against several relatively unknown wines from California.

Spurrier thought he might be able to show the Paris wine community that some of these up-and-coming California wines could hold their own against the world's best. But of course the California wines would lose. Duh. If anything, the French judges would easily recognize their own wines--and probably score them higher out of pride.

And then the impossible happened. The California wines won. The French judges chose them over their own wines.

Today, we take for granted the idea that California's best wines are as good as any. But back then? The idea was laughable. But even more laughable was the fact that the judges at this tasting--among them some of the foremost tastemakers in French culture--literally could not tell which wines were from where. There's an amusing passage from George Taber's book Judgment of Paris that lays out the scene:

Raymond Oliver, the owner and chef of the Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris, one of the temples of French haute cuisine, swirled a white wine in his glass, held it up to the light to examine the pale straw color, smelled it, and then tasted it. After a pause he said, "Ah, back to France!" I checked my liste of wines twice to be sure, but Oliver had in fact just tasted a 1972 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay from California's Napa Valley.

Soon after, Claude Dubois-Millot of GaultMillau, a publisher of French food and wine books and magazines, tasted another white wine and said with great confidence, "That is definitely California. It has no nose." But the wine was really a 1973 Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, one of Burgundy's finest products.

Things went downhill from there. After the tasting was over and it was hideously apparent that these French wine "experts" had betrayed their own country's finest wines, they did what any self-respecting French person would do. They complained. One of the judges, Odette Kahn, furiously demanded her ballot back--once she learned she'd awarded her highest scores to two California reds.

Later, the entire French wine industry retaliated by banning Steven Spurrier from industry events and wine tours. And several of the judges refused to talk about the event at all--even after years had passed. It was too painful to discuss.

All of which raises a question: why would grown adults behave like this?

Think about it this way: if your ego was entirely invested in the success of your own country's wine, and you saw your precious national wines defeated in front of your eyes--and by your own hand!--you'd probably be capable of embarrassing and immature acts of rationalization too.

And the French wine community continued to rationalize. Later, they argued that the contest unfairly pitted "young" French wines against "less young" California wines. This actually wasn't true--all the wines were from similar vintages.

However, this complaint did raise the entirely valid question of which regions' wines would age better. Which is why Wine Spectator magazine ran an anniversary tasting ten years later with the same wines.

And the California wines won again--by an increased margin of victory.

So what is this story really about? Well, first, it's evidence of how blind-tastings can make even world-renowned wine experts look like dopes. More importantly, it's proof that we as consumers should drink what we like and never let experts tell us what to like.

Finally, it's about how our egos can go to embarrassingly great lengths to protect us from the truth. Here's what the now-infamous Odette Kahn--our wine judge who demanded her ballot back--later wrote in a French wine magazine:

The only lesson to be drawn from this tasting, in my opinion, is that certain winegrowers in California can produce (in small quantity, if my information is correct) wines of good quality, agreeable to taste.... I believe it is interesting for the French wine world to know this, but from this to proclaim (or to fear it to be proclaimed) that the California wines 'beat' our great wines, that is a leap, a very great leap.

This must be what they mean by "backhanded compliment."

For Further Reading/Viewing:
1) Judgment of Paris: The Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine One of the best books I've ever read about wine, and the definitive history of this event.
2) Bottle Shock: A 2008 film dramatizing the 1976 tasting.
3) An excellent article from The Guardian about the tasting and its aftermath
4) Wikipedia on Odette Kahn.

One quick postscript for readers: I simply have to share one more scene from Judgment of Paris, where a French customs agent refuses to clear five cases of English wine into France. With the wine sitting on the floor in front of him, Steven Spurrier angrily asks the agent why he won't stamp the importation papers:

"Because English wine does not exist," the customs agent replied. "Here is my list of goods that can be exported from England to France. There is no wine. There is no such thing as English wine, so I cannot clear it through customs. I cannot clear what doesn't exist."

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