Identifying a wine can be hazardous. When the wine writer Harry Waugh was asked when was the last time he had confused Bordeaux with Burgundy, he famously replied ‘not since lunch’. In a similar vein, I once played a naughty trick on a sophisticated wine merchant by pouring a Château Pétrus 1970 from Bordeaux — one of the greatest wines of the world — into an empty bottle of Château Balgownie from Bendigo and asking him what he thought of it. ‘A bit Rioja-like,’ he sniffed.
The ultimate challenge is a blind tasting. The most famous tasting event took place in France in 1976 with 12 Californian wines from little-known producers up against eight of the most prestigious Burgundies and Bordeaux. It became known as ‘the Judgment of Paris’ and its nine French tasters blindly awarded first place to both white and red Californian wines, over such great French classics as Bâtard-Montrachet and Château Mouton-Rothschild. Steven Spurrier, the British wine writer who put the event together when he was working as a wine merchant in Paris, has just published a memoir, Wine — A Way of Life, which shows he was as amazed as the rest of the wine world at the result. Odette Kahn, editor of La Revue du vin de France, was so mortified she demanded (but failed) to have her scorecards back.
There have been several re-enactments of the original event, though not with identical wines. Still, the outcome has always followed the same broad result, to the irritation of Francophiles. It’s possible to experience the challenges and pitfalls of such an event at the Vineyard, the hotel in Berkshire founded by Sir Peter Michael, the hi-tech multi-millionaire and owner of the highly regarded Peter Michael Winery in California. There’s a life-size painting of the original Judgment of Paris off the lobby, and the restaurant offers a Judgment of Paris wine pairing together with the tasting menu.
The Vineyard is a perfect destination to put people through their vinous paces as it has the largest UK list of first-rate Californian wines, along with a serious range from France and the rest of the world. The dinner began with two whites — the first was rather lean and mean while the second one was typical of a full-throttle young white Burgundy. What is fascinating, though, is how one can be completely thrown off track by doubts. Initially I had assumed both were Chardonnay, but on second thoughts, the first one was too acidic and short, so I wrongly assumed they must both be Rhône varietals. Totally wrong. It was Château Montelena 2013. This was the wine that triumphed in first place at the Judgment of Paris. The second wine was a 2015 village Meursault from a grower I had never heard of (Lafouge). What was even more shaming is that I had had a glass of a different vintage of Montelena only hours earlier.
Next up were two Pinot Noirs. The first was sweet and superficial with no complexity — obviously, I thought, the Californian. The second had profound depth and power with restrained fruit — could it be a Morey St Denis? Not exactly… It turned out that the first was French — a Gevrey Chambertin 2015 from Magnien — while the second was a Melville 2014 from the Sta. Rita Hills near Santa Barbara. I didn’t cover myself in glory with the rival Cabernets either — in fact, I failed to identify any of the combinations. Unlike my wife, who did.
I now have a more sympathetic attitude towards those French tasters and their confusion about the results. With hindsight, what does Steven Spurrier think? He told me that such tastings are inevitably just a snapshot of their time. ‘Ultimately, it was a win-win for both countries: the French realised they had to spend more money on their vineyards as they were in the doldrums. And in California, it encouraged a large influx of money and talent.’ Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine Romanée-Conti and one of the original tasters, was more forthright, seeing it as a much-needed kick in the pants for the French wine industry.
It also had a widespread impact in the wine world as a whole. As Spurrier noted: ‘It has become a template, creating a level playing field to allow wines from relatively unknown regions of the world to be properly appreciated.’ Not bad from a single tasting event in a Parisian hotel by a young British wine merchant.