Badass Beverage: The Judgment of Paris

Read about one of the best tales in modern wine history, the story on which the film BOTTLE SHOCK is based.  

Peter Paul Rubens’ 1636 The Judgment of Paris, the most famous of a series by the painter concerning the Greek myth of the mortal Paris and his task to choose the fairest among the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera, has nothing to do with wine. It is simply beautiful.

The 1976 Judgment of Paris, though, is one of the best stories in modern wine, and the catalyst for the massive wine boom that would dominate the 1980s and '90s. It led California’s wines to dominate the industry, and paved the way for other New World appellations to be recognized on the world stage. It also caused a vast majority of Old World wineries to rethink their methods and begin to modernize. The Judgment of Paris was as significant an event as the phylloxera plague of the 1800s.

But in order to understand why the Judgment of Paris was so important, we have to first understand what was happening in California.

It Rains on the Just and the Unjust Alike, Except in California.

Texas may have been there first, but California is king of the American wine industry. And, frankly, for good reason. Climate is the most important aspect in winemaking, the very concept of terroir is predicated on grapes developing unique characteristics based on where they grow, and the climate in parts of California is just about perfect. Throughout the Napa Valley in particular, the growing season is one with long warm days and cool nights, with plenty of sunshine and low levels of humidity. It rains when it needs to rain, and when it doesn’t vineyards can simply irrigate the fields*. Napa doesn’t suffer from the freak hailstorms of Burgundy, the early frosts of Mosel, or the desiccating heat of Tuscany. These near-perfect growing conditions were instrumental in attracting world-class winemakers to California, particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

While the phylloxera pest was having a field day decimating the vineyards of Europe, winemaking was flourishing in California. Talented European (read: French) winemakers made their way across the ocean, and brought more than their knowledge with them. The first Cabernet Sauvignon planted in what is now Mount Eden Vineyards, for example, was from vine cuttings from the esteemed Château Margaux, one of the original four First Growths of Bordeaux. California’s wine industry was showing great promise in a short period of time, and then Prohibition set in.

I’ve mentioned this before, but Prohibition really fucked us up as a nation. I celebrate Repeal Day like some people celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall**. The effects of Prohibition were devastating, on the national psyche as much as in the beverage industry, wine included. By the end, there were only 140 vineyards left in California.

Thankfully, in 1938, Georges de Latour of Beaulieu Vineyards discovered André Tchelistcheff, scientist, winemaker, veteran of the Russian Civil War, and all around badass. At 4’11”, Tchelistcheff was basically wino Wolverine, only Russian.

After becoming chief winemaker for BV, Tchelistcheff would revolutionize Californian winemaking. He introduced the use of small French and American oak barrels, which adds complexity and richness to a wine. He was instrumental in developing California’s Heat Index, a method used to help determine which grapes are best suited to which regions. And he was particularly influential in the development of the California style of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

California Dreams.

It is with these two noble grapes that Steven Spurrier, one of the world’s preeminent wine experts, would concern himself.

Chardonnay reigns in Burgundy, where it is used for most every white wine from the cheeky and inexpensive Mâcon Villages to the ponderous elegance of Corton-Charlemagne. It is a grape that is extremely sensitive to its terroir, which is why the crisp and mineral wines of Chablis taste so different from the round and creamy wines made in Meursault. It is the most important white grape in California because the warmer climate lets the wine develop a distinctly tropical character that integrates well with the creamy vanilla notes of new oak and the buttery element caused by malolactic fermentation***.

Cabernet Sauvignon, the heaviest and most flavorful of the red varietals, is the jewel of Bordeaux. An incredibly stubborn grape that requires a very particular growing season, it is often blended with Merlot (and a half dozen other grapes) in order to temper the rough tannins and allow the wine to open. There are very few 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines in Bordeaux, but they can be some of the very best. California, being warmer, sunnier, and dryer than Bordeaux, offers the perfect conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon. In Napa Valley in general, and the Stag’s Leap District in particular, Cabernet Sauvignon develops a juicy and fruit-forward style, with lots of black currant and cedar and all sorts of earthy flavors. Its tremendous weight means that grilled Porterhouse steak and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the all-time great food and wine pairings.

So. Spurrier. On May 24th of 1976, Steven Spurrier took it upon himself to organize a wine tasting, to be judged by a panel of French experts, between the finest wines in the world (read: France) and those upstarts in America. The wines in each category were tasted blind, ranked individually on a twenty point scale, and the mean was used to determine the winners. The highest ranked red was the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, and the white was the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Both from California.

Now, we can get into the subjectivity of taste and the value of grading wine on a point scale (it’s bullshit) all day long. And really, I’d be more than happy to. But regardless, the important part is what the Judgment of Paris meant to the world. Wine changed after that. Gradually at first (the French press found the entire affair laughable, and the only reporter to attend at all was George Taber of TIME magazine), but relentlessly, the story spread. The subsequent interest in American wines would pave the way for Argentina to showcase its Malbec, for Australia and New Zealand to enter the world stage with excellent Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc, respectively. And the Old World, France and Italy, Spain and Portugal and Germany, would begin to experiment and modernize and look forward and make better wine. And eventually, California would come to stand as one of the finest appellations in the world alongside, among others, Burgundy and Bordeaux.

The Judgment of Paris, in its way, changed the world. And for the better.

P.S. If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the charming if flawed 2008 film Bottle Shock told a fictionalized version of the story.

*Irrigation isn’t just frowned upon in most (if not all) Old World winemaking appellations, it is flat out illegal.

**Only with less Hasselhoff.

***Malolactic fermentation is when the yeasts convert the acids in the juice to alcohol instead of the sugars. Wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation tend to be slightly sweet, and in the case of Chardonnay develop flavors and aromas reminiscent of buttered popcorn.