The most significant news story ever
written about wine was just four paragraphs long, condensed
from a 2,000-word fact file sent by a reporter who had never written about wine
On June 7, 1976, Time magazine carried the four paragraphs under the
headline "Judgment of Paris" as the second story in
its Modern Living section, after an item about a new theme park in Atlanta.
"It was filler. It didn't even have a photo," says the
writer, George M. Taber, who visited Auction Napa Valley earlier this month to
promote a book due this fall, "Judgment of Paris: California vs. France
and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine"
The cover story of that issue of Time
was about a scandal involving cheating on tests at the U.S. Military Academy at
West Point. The academy subsequently changed its honor code, and thatstory has been long forgotten by most people.
Meanwhile, Taber's news brief -- about French judges choosing a
Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay from Napa Valley as superior to the best
from their mother country in a blind tasting in Paris -- continues to have
impact around the wine world.
"It is amazing that after 30 years, people are
still talking about the Paris tasting," says Warren Winiarski, owner of
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, which won the red wine
category. "Even at this late date, the French still find it too painful to
Enophiles now acknowledge that great wine
can come from almost anywhere - - Italy, Spain, New Zealand or any place with
the right weather for grape growing. In 1976, that was heresy.
Most people believed that only France had the proper terroir
-- the combination of microclimate and soil -- to make truly great wines.
"Before the Paris tasting, the French could always say, terroir,
terroir, terroir," says Mike Grgich, winemaker of the Napa Valley
Chardonnay that finished first among white wines. "After
the Paris tasting, we learned there are good soils everywhere -- California,
Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop
in Paris that catered to the English-speaking expatriate
community, was able to line up some of France's most-respected wine
authorities to judge his Paris tasting, but no journalists other than Taber
Taber, fluent in French and one of two reporters in Time's Paris
bureau, says he didn't plan to go because he was sure the French would win. But
he was pestered by Patricia Gallagher, an American who worked at Spurrier's
shop and had taught Taber a wine-appreciation course a few
"If it wasn't George, who could understand French perfectly and
knew the mistakes (the judges) were making, the story might
never have been anything," says Winiarski.
As is common at tastings, the whites -- California Chardonnays and
white Burgundies made from Chardonnay -- were tasted first,
followed by the reds, in this case California Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux
wines based mostly on Cab.
Taber's first inkling that something unusual was going
on came halfway through the white-wine tasting, when the
judges couldn't immediately say which wines were from California. As the only
journalist there, he was allowed to roam among the judges. He also had a list
of what they were blind-tasting, so he captured the story's
"That is definitely California. It has no
nose," one judge said of a 1973 Batard Montrachet from Burgundy.
Raymond Oliver, described by Taber as the doyen of French culinary
writers, exclaimed, "Ah, back to France!" as he happily sipped a
Chardonnay from Napa Valley's Freemark Abbey winery.
Originally, Spurrier had planned to release the red and white results
together at the end of the day, but the organizers were pressing to finish
before a wedding reception took over the room, so they released the white
results early. The 1973 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay was announced
as the winner.
"People were just shocked," says Taber, who was born in
Riverdale (Fresno County) and grew up in Los Angeles. "I felt a sense of
pride. Kind of like, 'Hey, we won.' I don't think I would have had that
same sense if I hadn't been from California."
Later, the red wine results were announced. That
category was won by the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V.
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, beating four grand cru reds from Bordeaux.
"What actually happened at the Paris tasting was that
the lover of wine was given an opportunity to taste wine
without a predetermined hierarchy," says Stag's Leap's Winiarski, 77.
"It was no longer the sacred soils of France were at the top and everyone
else was below it."
The reverberations were immediate, particularly in Napa Valley, which
saw a real-estate and winemaking boom.
"Time magazine called me from New York (in 1976) and said they
wanted to interview me," says Grgich, 82, who now owns Grgich Hills winery
in Rutherford. "I said, 'For what? What did I do wrong?' "
All over the world, winemakers and winery owners set new, higher goals
for their products.
"Before the Paris tasting, France was on a pedestal and everybody
else was making plonk," Taber says.
Yet Taber, who specialized in writing about business, says he didn't
notice the impact of his four paragraphs for two decades. Today, his notes for
the story are in the Smithsonian Institution, along with the
winemaking notes of Winiarski and Grgich.
Taber left Time in 1988 to start a business newspaper in New Jersey. He
was invited to Napa Valley on the 20th anniversary of the Paris tasting. That's
when he learned how important his four paragraphs had been. Indeed, people are
still talking about it.
"I was at Mondavi today, and they were talking about it like it
was Geraldo Rivera. The tasting room guy said a fistfight broke out after the
results. It was nothing like that," Taber says.
On the other side of the Atlantic, even 29 years after the event,
"The French were saying, 'We've been tricked,' " says Taber, 63.
"I interviewed six of the nine judges after the event. They knew exactly
what had happened. I wrote the book to set the record straight.
"I've interviewed presidents of France. I've interviewed
presidents of the United States, but the storythat
I did that will go down in history is the