Tue, May 23, 2006 - Page 16 News List

French wines go head-to-head with the New World


The year was 1976, and in Paris an English vintner, Steven Spurrier, organized an historic tasting that, in the world's wine circles, would be talked about forever after.

Nicknamed the "Judgment of Paris," it pitted France's top Bordeaux and Burgundies against American Cabernets and Chardonnays which, while well-regarded, were virtually unknown outside California.

The California wines won -- and France has never gotten over it.

When Spurrier initially invited nine of France's most knowledgeable wine experts -- owners of top chateaux, wine critics, restaurateurs and sommeliers -- to taste California wines and give their opinions, he had trouble getting anyone to take him seriously.

"I thought this would be a marvellous way to generate publicity for my wine shop," Spurrier recalled.

"We invited many French journalists, but in the end, only one (George Taber, an American who worked for Time magazine's Paris bureau) came. The French just didn't think it was newsworthy."

Spurrier advised the tasters that not only would they be tasting "blind" -- that is, the bottles would be covered so the contents could not be identified -- but some good French examples had also been thrown in for good measure.

Among the all-French panel were Claude Dubois-Millot, commercial director of the GaultMillau food and travel guide; Jean-Claude Vrinat, owner of Michelin three-star restaurant Taillevent; and Christian Vanneque, sommelier for La Tour d'Argent. They thought it would be a bit of fun but otherwise unremarkable.

That is, until Spurrier announced the stunning results that the judges had rated the California wines higher than those of their fellow countrymen, including Mouton-Rothschild (Bordeaux), Haut-Brion (Bordeaux) and Domaine Roulot Meursault-Charmes (Burgundy).

One judge, Odette Kahn, editor of La Revue de Vin de France demanded her scores back. Several cried foul. Others were scorned by wine industry colleagues -- and at least one may have been sacked from his sommelier job -- for shaming their country.

French wine had been toppled from its safe, centuries-old pinnacle, and California's star was ascending.

"The reaction of the French was one of complete disbelief and denial," Spurrier said.

"Some people accused me of rigging the competition. Actually, I did think I had rigged it -- but in favour of the French. Why would I have put in the top French wines -- Haut-Brion, Mouton, Montrose and Leoville-Lascases -- if I didn't expect them to win?"

Taber agreed the response was unprecedented.

"It's hard to describe just how shocking this David versus Goliath outcome was," he said. "In 1976, France was a massive force in the wine world, and California wasn't even a blip."

Last year, Taber published The Judgment of Paris, an account of the fateful day and its consequences.

"There was so much controversy, and a lot of misplaced anger following my original article," he said.

"They were lambasted by their colleagues and the media. All the judges had problems afterwards. I wrote the book to set the record straight."

"To this day, some of the judges -- like Aubert de Villaine (co-owner of the iconic Burgundy estate Domaine de la Romanee-Conti) -- refuse to discuss it."

Wine columnists, shops and societies around the world continue to stage reincarnations of the original, as well as variations on the Old World versus New World theme to the ongoing consternation of the French.

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