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‘The Judgment of Paris Revisited’ at Napa Valley Museum

November 19, 2010 by Michael Wangbickler  
Filed under Wine

The following article appeared in yesterday’s edition of the St. Helena Star. The Judgement of Paris was such an important event in the history of California wine, it is hard to imagine that it may never have happened. Read on to see what I mean.

‘The Judgment of Paris Revisited’ at Napa Valley Museum

Judgment of Paris Revisited

More than 175 people attended Napa Valley Museum’s recent event, “The Judgment of Paris Revisited.” Panelists were, from left, Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski, Joanne Dickenson DePuy, George M. Taber and Jim Barrett. All five were involved in the original 1976 Paris tasting; the sixth, Steven Spurrier, could not attend the Oct. 30 event. Submitted photo

The year 1976 was a pivotal one for the Napa Valley. It marked a turning point in California as two wines from the Valley took top honors over several French rivals in a competition which later became known as the “Judgment of Paris.” While the impact of the event was unknown at the time, thanks to a brief mention in Time Magazine by George M. Taber, who was the only journalist in attendance, it soon became evident that California wine had established a beachhead on the world stage.

The two wines to take top honors were a chardonnay from Jim Barrett’s Chateau Montelena (made by Mike Grgich) and a cabernet sauvignon from Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. At a recent event at the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville titled “The Judgment of Paris Revisited,” members of the museum and community at large had the opportunity to hear a discussion between Taber, Winiarski, Barrett, and later, Grgich.

By now, many people, both inside and outside the wine business, know the story. Its notoriety is due, in part, to Taber’s book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine,” but also to the 2008 motion picture Bottle Shock. Taber’s book gives a comprehensive (and insider’s) look at the event and its impact on the wine world since. Forgiving the liberal artistic license with which all Hollywood producers/directors feel compelled to take with any subject, Bottle Shock was nonetheless a good story.

The whole saga started when British wine merchant Steven Spurrier decided to have a little contest between the best wines of California and France at his shop in Paris. It was, by any reckoning, a publicity stunt intended to bring more business to Spurrier’s store and wine school. His intention was to show how far California wines had come, but he never envisioned that they would best what he considered to be some of the world’s greatest wines.

What many people may not realize is that this key event in California wine history almost didn’t happen. In the spring of 1976, Spurrier and his wife, Bella, made the journey to Napa Valley to scout out the wine scene in this sleepy back-water region. He didn’t tell anyone he was coming, nor did he share what he was doing. He was so impressed with a dozen or so producers that he purchased (at full retail) several cases of wine to take back with him to France for the tasting. What he didn’t realize at the time is, under French law, he was unable to carry in more than two bottles of wine from outside the country.

Enter Joanne Dickenson DePuy. Joanne ran a business called Wine Tours International (WTI) which brought vintners from international wine regions to Napa Valley, and vice versa. It was DePuy who arranged Spurrier’s tour of Napa Valley, taking him from winery to winery. And, it was DePuy who would later save the day by helping get Spurrier’s purchased wines into France.

When he finally realized that he had an issue, Spurrier phoned DePuy to ask for her help. Coincidentally (some may say serendipitously) she was planning WTI’s first vintner tour to France a week later, led by none other than Andre Tchelistcheff, who many consider America’s most influential post-Prohibition winemaker. Also on that trip were Louis P. and Liz Martini, Andy and Betty Beckstoffer, Bob and Nonie Travers, Jim and Laura Barrett, Margrit Biever (soon to be Mondavi), Zelma Long, and Rene di Rosa, among others. Spurrier asked DePuy if she would take the wines with her group.

“Without thinking, I said, ‘Yes, of course,’” said DePuy. “I had no idea what that hastily made promise would involve. How could I get these wines to Paris? I couldn’t ask the people on the tour, already loaded with their own luggage, to hand carry two bottles each for 20 hours and through two different airports. Aside from it’s being bad for business, what if someone dropped one?”

So, she reached out to Larry Cahn at the Wine Institute to ask his advice. He suggested that she should be able to get the wines through French customs if she assigned two bottles to each person on the trip. She also contacted her TWA (remember TWA?) rep, Earl Hankin, with whom she’d been working on the tour for over a year. He promised to help. Although he had intended to fly with the group on their first leg from San Francisco to Boston, Hankin wasn’t able to join them. But, he did arrange for the wines to be transported.

Upon landing at Charles de Galle airport, DePuy and group met Spurrier in his trademark white suit; he was pushing a large cart. Together they waited for the porter to deliver the cases. “At the same time, I was keeping an eye out for my luggage among the bags that were being belched onto a roundabout from a long see-through tube,” said DePuy. “I spotted the cases – but not on the porter’s dolly. They were on the roundabout. And then I smelled it . . . wine … strong wine … a magnificent bouquet making its debut in Paris.” Fortunately, only one of the bottles broke, and there were duplicates.

Spurrier loaded the cases onto his cart, and with a smile, strolled off into the crowd unknowingly about the change the fortunes of Napa Valley wine forever.

If you like reading about the wine business from the Napa Valley perspective, you should consider subscribing to the St. Helena Star.

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