The Judgement of Paris

‘The Judgement of Paris’… sounds serious doesn’t it? Well you’re right it is. It is widely considered to be one of the most important things to have happened in the modern world of wine.

Central to this story is a Brit – Steven Spurrier. Spurrier (now aged 74) entered the wine trade in 1964 as a trainee with London’s oldest wine merchant Christopher and Co. In 1970 he moved to Paris where he persuaded an elderly lady to sell him her small wine store located in a passageway off the rue Royale. Not far from La Place de Concorde, where King Louis XVI was executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. This story doesn’t include any death, violence or gore. Nevertheless it is a story of French pride and a revolution of sorts.

From 1971 Spurrier ran the wine shop Les Caves de la Madeleine where clients were encouraged to taste wines before they bought them, it achieved recognition as a highly regarded specialist wine shop, that sold the best of French wine. Through this Spurrier built a reputation as a champion of French wine.

And, it was with this spirit that Spurrier set up a blind tasting of France’s greatest wines with some new pretenders from the New World. He invited some of France’s most celebrated palates to judge them blind.

To everyones surprise, the mainly French judges famed for their much celebrated palates largely preferred the young pretenders from California to the noble French wines. Nobody was more shocked than the judges… afterall it was a blind tasting.

As a French wine enthusiast, and owner of a French wine shop that was dedicated to the best wines from France, Spurrier was likely the last person to expect this result. Spurrier is quoted as saying “I thought I had it rigged for the French wines to win,”. Indeed Spurrier had chosen some very formidable French wines. Three of the Bordeaux wines in the competition were from the 1970 vintage, identified by the Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux as among the four best vintages in the past 45 years or more.

Although Spurrier had invited many reporters to the tasting the French media largely ignored or ridiculed the tasting. Understandably so, France is the world’s biggest producer of wine, and of course they are famed for their quality as well as quantity. The only reporter to attend the ‘Judgement of Paris’ was George M. Taber from TIME magazine, who promptly revealed the results to the world.

While the results of the tasting were kept very quiet in France. The impact in California was seismic, it gave the Californians a renewed sense of energy and purpose. It gave instant credibility to a nascent Californian wine industry and they haven’t looked back since. The impact was massive for the Californian wineries that did well, particularly Stag’s Leap and Montelena.

The 1976 Judgement of Paris has been the subject of many re-enactments, as well as a book and film. The first re-enactments took place at the San Francisco Wine Tasting of 1978 (where the same Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons were tasted as at the Judgement of Paris). Then came the French Culinary Institute Wine Tasting of 1986. And then ‘The Tasting that Changed the Wine World: The Judgment of Paris’ 30th Anniversary,’ with tastings on both sides of the Atlantic. But, it is fair to say none of these tastings had the impact that the ‘Judgement of Paris’ had in 1976.

In my next article I reveal the results of a Bordeaux vs New World wine tasting that I attended at West London Wine School.