By Julia Flynn Siler
A small Paris tasting shook the wine world in 1976 when French experts ranked California wines over elite French vintages. The Judgment of Paris, as it is now known, gave California wines world-class stature. But French oenophiles charged that the tasting was unfair, and some French wineries have refused to participate in rematches ever since.
Thirty years later, as California’s Napa Valley prepares commemorations of its 1976 victory, the affair is stirring up messy fights on both sides of the Atlantic. And some American winemakers are joining the French resistance to the planned re-enactments of the famous tasting.
The owner of the Napa winery whose Chardonnay won the Paris tasting is feuding with the man who actually made that wine, and refuses to appear at any event with him. Several California winemakers have declined invitations to a competition among newer wines that is part of the festivities. “Some of the California producers don’t want to take the risk of putting their wines into a blind tasting,” says Steven Spurrier, the British wine merchant who held the 1976 tasting and is helping organize the 30-year celebrations.
In the Paris tasting, Mr. Spurrier invited French wine experts to rate promising new California wines against French vintages. He poured from unmarked bottles in a “blind” tasting that included such storied French wines as Meursault-Charmes and Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
The tasters — famous sommeliers, restaurateurs and chateau owners — were shocked to find they had ranked some California wines, many from Napa, above the French. One French judge demanded her scorecards back, Mr. Spurrier says. Other judges claimed Mr. Spurrier had skewed the results by matching six California wines against four French. For a time, Mr. Spurrier, who ran a Paris wine shop, was persona non grata at some French wineries.
On the 30-year anniversary, May 24, organizers in Napa and England plan to stage simultaneous tastings of some of France’s and California’s finest wines. The initial plan was to stage a rematch of Judgment of Paris with the original reds from the early 1970s. (Many white wines don’t age as well.) And there would be blind tastings of newer wines.
The organizers invited back the wineries that participated in the 1976 event, including Napa’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Vineyard, which produced the top-ranked red. They also asked other leading wineries to submit newer reds and whites for tasting. But, despite months of requests and pleas, France’s most highly regarded wine producers balked at submitting their wines to a competition with California wines.
Led by Paul Pontallier, manager of Chateau Margaux’s Bordeaux estate, three of France’s top producers argued that they didn’t want their wines tasted side-by-side with the California wines, but instead Bordeaux against Bordeaux and California against California. The wines are too different to be compared, they argued. “When you listen to a Mozart symphony, you listen to all three movements — you don’t insert a Beethoven in the middle,” Mr. Pontallier explains. Mr. Spurrier says he agreed to the French demand.
Making matters trickier, some Americans joined the rebellion. The owner of Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena, whose Chardonnay won the 1976 Paris tasting, refused to appear with Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, who made the winning Chateau Montelena wine. Mr. Grgich, a beret-wearing Croatian immigrant, now makes a competing Chardonnay at his Grgich Hills Cellars in Napa.
The feud is an old one. Not long after Chateau Montelena won the Paris tasting, the already-strained relationship between the winery’s owner, James L. Barrett, and its winemaker, Mr. Grgich, worsened. Mr. Grgich quit in mid-1977 and founded his own winery.
In the years since, both Chateau Montelena and Grgich Hills have separately celebrated their involvement in the Paris tasting. Both men helped George M. Taber, the only journalist present at the 1976 tasting, with research for his 2005 book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.”
Reading galleys of the book last spring, Mr. Grgich was enraged to see Mr. Barrett’s claims that the award-winning wine had an unusual copper color a few weeks after bottling that eventually disappeared, suggesting it was imperfect. Mr. Grgich says he angrily phoned Chateau Montelena and threatened to sue Mr. Taber for libel. Mr. Grgich maintained the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay was “perfect from the beginning.”
Mr. Barrett gave the anniversary organizers an ultimatum: “If you want Mike and his wines, I’m not coming,” Mr. Barrett says he told the organizers. “My dispute is that he’s on an ego trip,” he says.
Mr. Grgich says the opposite is true and that it is his old boss who is unfairly “trying to claim credit, even though he didn’t make the wine.” Mr. Grgich was excluded from the 10th and 20th anniversary celebrations, he says, and feels “they are still trying to push me out of it.”
Facing the ultimatum, Peter Marks, who is organizing the Napa celebrations, invited Mr. Barrett to participate in the formal tastings, excluding Mr. Grgich. As a consolation, Mr. Marks plans to designate Grgich Hills as its “winery of the week” at the end of the tasting week.
Meanwhile, several well-known California wineries turned down invitations to participate in 30th-anniversary tastings, say Mr. Marks and several other people involved in the event. The decliners include Harlan Estate in Oakville, Calif., which produces a much-sought-after Cabernet, and Kistler Vineyards, a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer in California’s Russian River valley.
Mr. Marks suspects some of the California wineries don’t want to risk the fate of the French in 1976. “Some wineries are feeling the upside is just not as great as the downside,” he says. “They don’t want to undertake the risk.”
Harlan Estate and Kistler Vineyards deny they feared losing. “We get invitations all the time and we hardly ever put our wines in tastings,” says H. William Harlan II, Harlan’s owner. “We really don’t have the wine to spare,” explains Mark Bixler, co-founder of Kistler, which produces about 30,000 cases a year and sells only to people on its mailing list.
Mr. Spurrier, who says he didn’t set out to embarrass the French in his 1976 tasting, had hoped to avoid sniping this year by casting the event as a celebration, not a competition. “It’s ironic that some of the wineries in California that benefited so much from the 1976 tasting are not participating,” he says. “Someone has to be last and they don’t want to be there.”
William Echikson contributed to this article.