George Washington's birthday Thursday was a fitting occasion to present 60-odd American wines to the French public. Washington was an aficionado of fine wines and one of Thomas Jefferson's duties as his ambassador to the court of Louis XVI was to seek out the best crus of Bordeaux and Burgundy for the president's cellar.
Held at the U.S. Embassy here, the tasting was organized by the nationwide American wine club, Les Amis du Vin, and the California Wine Institute, in cooperation with the agricultural attaché. This unusual event drew a large number of French wine experts, vineyard managers (such as Eric de Rothschild of Château Lafite and the Marquis de Goulaine from the Muscadet region), journalists, restaurateurs, vintners and enlightened wine drinkers.
Their curiosity was intense and their remarks both highly favorable and at times disparaging for several reasons, which we will come to in a moment.
The wines were grouped by type at five separate tables. Nearest the entrance were the Chardonnay whites. Next came a table of various whites from dry Sauvignons to rich sweet Johannesberg-Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. The third table held miscellaneous reds (Merlots, Petite Syrahs and Pinot Noirs).
The far end of the room was given over to Cabernet-Sauvignons and the last table held the Zinfandels.
The sharp interest of the French in these wines proved that it was high time for a showing in France. A few mistakes that marred the overall effect can be put down to the problems involving a first trial.
A large heated room filled with 200 or so tasters is not the ideal setting for a serious tasting. While the whites were at a perfect temperature at the beginning, by the time the mass of guests had arrived, most of them were too warm.
Experienced tasters who came early, such as Louis Orizet, a retired agronomist and still a grower in the Beaujolais, said flatly that the whites were on the same level as comparable French wines.
Tasters who arrived later found the same wines heavy, almost sweet in their richness. So did I, after retasting them warm. But then most whites are not at their best if not properly cooled.
If other tasters were unable to make allowances for the temperature, it is probably because they were concentrating so hard on unfamiliar tastes that they forgot to take the circumstances into consideration.
Another problem was that the quality of the wines presented was uneven. Most were fine, even outstanding, examples of California winemaking. But why include $2 mass-produced wines of no interest to the French? What do they care about cheap American wine when they cannot even use all they produce themselves?
Their interest, for reasons of simple curiosity, new taste sensations, snob appeal, or whatever, can only be in the best wines of California. Are they really as good as they are cracked up to be?
Comment on the reds was more even-handed, although again the tendency was to compare them to similar French wines rather than to judge them for their intrinsic qualities.
Rothschild was not the least put off and took them for what they were because he has considerable familiarity and California's wines. Orizet found the Cabernets heavy, somewhat lacking in finesse, which he blamed on the hot weather in California and on vinification techniques. He found them to be "the type of wine you find in the south of France."
Were he and other tasters influenced by the relative youth of the reds (3 and 4 years old, most of them)? Big Bordeaux wines would certainly have seemed as thick and heavy at the same age in the same setting.
And the Californians make them that way deliberately. To be sure, they are drunk up much too soon on the whole, but that is true of most Bordeaux today, also. In any case, interest was lively and comments were by no means predominantly negative.
The French – Parisians, at least – will soon have the opportunity for further, more selective tastings, together with the possibility of buying the best that California produces. This is the aim of Pamela Meade, manager of Globcor Vin. She will soon be importing and distributing a first lot of 600 cases from 30 of California's small, quality wineries at the beginning of May. The Nicolas firm, among others, has already placed orders.