The story of California wines and the ‘Judgment of Paris’

Among movies with a wine theme are the popular “Sideways,” which focused on pinot noir and two guys on a bachelor trip, and “Bottle Shock,” which was about the 1976 competition between French and American wines in Paris. The movie was adapted from the book “Judgment of Paris,” by George Taber, who was the only journalist present at the competition between French and California wines. At the time, Taber was the Paris correspondent for Time magazine.

When you watch the movie, you are under the impression that Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay was the only California wine there. In actuality, there were 12 California wines entered — six chardonnays and six cabernet sauvignons. There were eight French wines — four red Bordeaux and four white Burgundies.

Besides Chateau Montelena, there were five other California whites: Freemark Abbey, Spring Mountain, Chalone, David Bruce and Veedercrest. There were six California reds: Heitz, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Clos du Val, Mayacamas, Ridge and Freemark Abbey (which entered both a red and a white). Out of these 11 wineries, only Veedercrest does not exist today because of a lawsuit with a distributor.

There were eight French wines, including four whites: Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches, Roulot Meursault Charmes, Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles and Ramonet-Prudhon Bâtard-Montrachet. The four reds were Château Montrose, Château Léoville-Las-Cases, Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion. All the judges were French.

Steven Spurrier was the catalyst who staged the now famous Judgment of Paris. He was educated in England and entered the wine trade in 1964 as a trainee with London’s oldest wine merchant, Christopher and Co. Six years later, he moved to Paris and persuaded an elderly woman to sell her small wine store. As the new owner, he encouraged customers to taste wines before purchasing, and then three years later he set up the now famous Judgment of Paris. His reasoning behind the competition was twofold. He truly thought that the French wines would win, but that the California wines would be introduced as up-and-coming contenders. Among the white wines, Spurrier expected Burgundy’s Bâtard-Montrachet to place first overall. By placing Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild among the red wines, he thought he had guaranteed a French winner among the cabernet sauvignons.

White Wine Results

1. *Chateau Montelena

2. Meursault Charmes

3. *Chalone

4. *Spring Mountain

5. Beaune Clos des Mouches

6. *Freemark Abbey

7. Bâtard-Montrachet

8. Puligny-Montrachet

9. *Veedercrest

10. *David Bruce

*Denotes California

Red Wine Results

1. *Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

2. Château Mouton Rothschild

3. Chateau Montrose

4. Chateau Haut-Brion

5. *Ridge Monte Bello

6. Château Léoville-Las-Cases

7. *Heitz Martha’s Vineyard

8. *Clos du Val

9. *Mayacamas

10. *Freemark Abbey

*Denotes California

Stag’s Leap Cellars cabernet took first place among the reds. And now Stag’s Leap has a local connection. Chateau Ste. Michelle, in partnership with Antinori of Italy, recently bought Stag’s Leap Cellars after winemaker and owner Warren Winiarski’s children opted not to continue in their father’s footsteps. I have personally spoken with other wineries which have been bought by Chateau Ste. Michelle. They speak glowingly of their new owner: “We get phone calls from Ste. Michelle asking if there is anything they can do for us.”

Back to the Judgment of Paris. Although many journalists were invited to the Paris tasting, George Taber was the only one who attended. On page 58 of Time magazine, his four-paragraph article was buried next to an ad for Armstrong tires in the “Modern Living” section. His last sentence: “Last week in Paris, at a formal wine tasting organized by Spurrier, the unthinkable happened: California defeated all Gaul.” At Acker Merrall & Condit, an upscale New York wine store, five cases of Chateau Montelena and Freemark Abbey were sold out by mid-day — at $5.99 a bottle. Another New York City shop reported receiving 400 phone calls asking about the winning wines the day after the article appeared.

Now retired from Time magazine, George Taber has just written another book: “In Search of Bacchus, Wandering in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism.” Steven Spurrier, the English wine merchant who devised the Judgment of Paris and developed a wine course for Christie’s, is the wine consultant for Singapore Airlines and a contributor for Decanter Magazine.

Watch that apostrophe

An amusing side story that evolved out of the judging was about Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Stags’ Leap Winery (notice the placement of the apostrophe). When Warren Winiarski won for his 1973 cabernet sauvignon, he went to officially register his winery name. Although Stags’ Leap Winery had been a winery first, it had not officially registered. The two wineries battled in court for over 17 years. Then when Pine Ridge winery released a cabernet with “Stags Leap cabernet sauvignon” on the label, both Stag’s Leap and Stags’ Leap sued him. Now after years of controversy, the wineries have agreed that the placement of the apostrophe is critical. Plus, if a winery like Pine Ridge wants to include the appellation, it will not have an apostrophe at all. If you have a chance to look at the two labels together, the stags are facing different directions. The name comes from an Indian legend. When the Indians would stampede the deer herds to the cliff edge, one stag would escape by making a huge leap to an adjoining boulder.

It is also interesting to note that the same Stag’s Leap wine took first place in an identical competition in San Francisco for the same wines 20 months later, with a different set of judges. A bottle of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 cabernet sauvignon is in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History along with a bottle of Chateau Montelena 1973 chardonnay.

I visited both Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Stags’ Leap Winery in October. Both wineries were very busy with crush. Gondolas of grapes were being brought in; tired yet enthusiastic workers were working hard to unload. Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap is unadorned. It has a no-nonsense atmosphere. I mentioned to the tour guide that their supplies of gift items seemed low. He commented that the staff had ordered hats with the Stag’s Leap logo on them while Winiarski was away from the winery. Winiarski was irritated about the caps until he was told how many had sold. On the other hand, Stags’ Leap Winery, which is just a few driveways away, was initially a resort. Its buildings are Arts and Crafts Bungalow style. I tasted wine in a beautiful room filled with Mission-style furniture and stained glass windows, and I stayed overnight in one of the restored cabins.

An Island find

I had been hearing whispers about the dining room at the Aljoya retirement home across the street from where Safeway was. Then my daughter went there for breakfast after looking for breakfast at the Roanoke Inn in midweek. The staff at the Roanoke referred her to Aljoya. My husband and I had lunch there the following week. We were pleased. The dining room features tablecloths and silverware. The service is attentive. The corkage is $10, although the prices on the wine list are reasonable. The majority of the residents are independently living, and many are snowbirds enjoying the sun somewhere else. There is not a children’s menu, which I thought was odd with so many grandparents living there; however, the chef is amenable to whipping up chicken strips or macaroni and cheese.

Dee Hitch can be reached at

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