The Great Wine Taste - Off

A Touch of Paris

Summer 1976
A Touch of Paris no. 7

At 2 p.m. on May 24, 1976, the unthinkable happened. Seated down one side of a long table on the outdoor terrace of the Paris Hotel Intercontinental, an authoritative panel of French wine experts put an end to the myth of French superiority. At this blind tasting of the best red and white wines of France and California, the experts awarded top honors to an American wine in both categories.

You've got to be kidding. It's not possible.

Ah, but I'm afraid it is. And the anguished cries of indignation, hurt and skepticism rising from the French vineyards can do nothing to change these results. Is this really the death knell for the once unassailable preeminence of France in the world of wine? It was inevitable sooner or later but in order to understand this extraordinary event, it might be best to explain how it even took place on French soil.

Two years ago Paris wine merchant, Englishman Steven Spurrier, and myself began tossing around the idea of holding a Bicentennial comparative tasting of American and French wines under the auspices of our Académie du Vin tasting school. Subsequently, Spurrier took over the project after an extensive tour of California vineyards. The Académie du Vin organized a tasting and arranged to have a group of American growers on a visit to France bring a number of bottles from the finest Napa Valley wineries with them in their personal luggage to avoid red tape and holdups in customs.

Only two types of wine were in the running: red Cabernet-Sauvignons and white Chardonnays, six of each from California and four of each from France. If anything, the French wines held the advantage for they were on their home ground, had not traveled recently and had had plenty of time to rest in Spurrier's cellars. The American wines on the contrary had arrived only two weeks prior to the tasting.

There was certainly no stacking of the deck, as a few tasters were heard to grump after the results were known. Among the French reds were two premiers grands crus classés of the Médoc and Graves, châteaux Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion, and two second growths of the Médoc. Among the whites was a Burgundy grower's grand cru Bâtard-Montrachet and three premiers crus. The years were matched as closely as possible, again in favor of the French wines. The Mouton and Haut-Brion were both from the outstandingly good vintage of 1970 and were thus three years older than the California winner.

There was no possible way anyone could know what he was tasting as all the whites had been decanted into identical, numbered Burgundy-type bottles and all the reds into identical Bordeaux-type bottles, again identifiable only by number. Although Spurrier and an assistant participated in the tasting, the results were tallied up exclusive of their notes. The wines were served by the Intercontinental's wine steward, and to ensure objectivity the press looked on, ready to spot any irregularities.

The tasters included, among others, three-star restaurateurs Raymond Oliver and Jean-Claude Vrinat, respectively of the Grand Véfour and Taillevent; Pierre Tari, owner of Château Giscours and president of the Syndicat des Grands Crus Classés of Bordeaux; Aubert de Villaine, co-manager of the Domaine de la Romanéee-Conti in Burgundy; Pierre Bréjoux, inspector-general of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine; and Odette Kahn, editor of the Revue du Vin de France.

So what happened? Among the reds a 1973 Stag's Leap (Napa Valley) came in first with a total of 127.5 points (all the wines were judged on a scale of 20 by the nine experts). Second was a 1970 Mouton-Rothschild with 126 points. Third was a 1970 Château Haut-Brion with 125.5 points. Fourth was a French wine and fifth a California. Sixth place went to France and all the also-rans were Californias.

What is most interesting is that the spread among the top three was all of two points. So the California happened to come in first. Two of the top three were French. It doesn't really matter with such marginally differing scores which wine in fact was first. What really counts is that a California Cabernet-Sauvignon could attain an equal level with two of the long-established greatest red wines of Bordeaux.

The results among the whites were more distinctly in favor of California. First was a 1973 Château Monthelena with 132 points. Second place went to a grower's 1973 premier cru of Burgundy, a Meursault-Charmes, with 126.5 points. Third was another California, a 1974 Chalone Vineyards Chardonnay with 121 points. Fourth place also went to California, fifth was French and sixth California. The 1973 grand cru Bâtard-Montrachet only made seventh.

Thus among the whites three of the top four were California wines, but again the real point is that these two types of wines can now compete on an equal footing with the same type of wines in France. Unbelievable? Maybe. But why not? Enormous care, study and selection, not to mention huge sums of money, have gone into making the best wines possible in California conditions of soil, climate and winemaking.

Does this dethrone France? Hardly, for only two types of wine were in question. There is no way California, with its fairly uniform Mediterranean-type climate, is going to compete with the formidable variety of wines in the different regions and climates obtaining in France. Here and there France will be equaled in other parts of the world, an inevitable development with the explosion of knowledge about wine techniques now taking place.

But as long as the French can make good, honest, unhoked-up wines and not yield to the temptation to take shortcuts, as they have in recent years for the hard currency that wines bring in, as long as the French produce their best, honestly, without stretching production and adding tons of sugar to bring up the alcohol content, they have absolutely nothing to fear from the competition. If, however, they persist in resting on their laurels, they will be in for worse shocks in the future.