Recalling a Big Day for California Wines

May 6, 2016 - 3:00 PM

The clink of glasses was heard around the world on May 24, 1976, when California wines outranked respected French ones at the Paris Wine Tasting, often called the “Judgment of Paris.” The occasion fostered a rise in popularity of California wines and increased respect for their quality.

Wine expert Steven Spurrier organized the event to see whether California newcomers could compete in a blind taste test with French wines made from the same kinds of grapes. He matched French Bordeaux and white Burgundies against California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. For judges, he chose some of France’s most acclaimed oenophiles.
At a time when many connoisseurs considered French wines the world’s best, the unexpected happened. A 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon ranked No. 1 among reds, beating four top-rated Bordeaux. The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from California bested its French counterparts as well.

The 1973 Stag’s Leap has been described as “drinking history in a glass.” A bottle has even garnered a place in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to reflect the impact that the 1976 achievement had on the U.S. wine industry.

Chardonnays normally don’t have the longevity of Cabernet Sauvignons, but that doesn’t stop collectors from buying the legendary ones. According to Decanter Magazine, one of the few remaining bottles of the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay sold for $11,325 in 2010.

Today, the California labels that competed in the Judgment of Paris are still going strong. In addition to Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena, they include Clos du Val Winery, Heitz Wine Cellars, Freemark Abbey, Spring Mountain Vineyards, Chalone Vineyards, Ridge Vineyards, Veedercrest Vineyards, Mayacamas Vineyards, and David Bruce Winery.

Also still available are the French competitors, which include Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Haut-Brion, Château Montrose, Château Léoville-Las Cases, Meursault Charmes Roulot, Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin, Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, and Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive.