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The Judgement of Paris

By Graham House :: Photography by Bella Spurrier, courtesy of Chateau Montelena Winery

1976 for many of us was a great year. Rocky was the #1 movie; the Concorde started service; Apple Computer Company was formed, and our country celebrated its Bicentennial year. 

Forty-four years ago, in the world of wine, there were just three categories: the good stuff (French), the very good stuff (also French), and everything else. Few doubted that anything could be finer than the vines in Burgundy and Bordeaux, and those at the upper end of wine snobbery were unshakable Francophiles. At the time, California wine was still an unknown in the wine world. Robert Mondavi founded his eponymous winery just 10 years earlier. Wine lists were heavily founded on what we call today Old-World wines, with perhaps a couple of California wines.

And then an event on May 24, 1976 — a singular, notable event that would come to be known by the mythical name “The Judgment of Paris” — dramatically changed the way wines were seen and sought forever after. This was the day that has gone down in the wine history books that changed everything for California and the wine world. Two Napa Valley wines — Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon — prevailed in a blind tasting competition between French and American wines.

At the annual event, 11 judges at the Paris Tasting (nine French, one British and one American) decreed a California wine as the winner in both the red and white wine categories. It is not that California wines suddenly became regarded as better than French ones, but the tasting’s results proved that California wines could compete. They were suddenly, officially, good.

There is a great family film I recently watched — the most familiar version of the Judgment of Paris story, told in the 2008 film Bottle Shock, which focuses on Chateau Montelena and its winning Chardonnay. I believe you will find the film entertaining to watch while sipping your favorite wine at home.

To celebrate these two great wines, Jeffery Cohen, our wine specialist, will be offering to the membership through our retail wine program, Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Both are great wines tied to their foundations of great wine making.

Judgement of Paris: Fun Facts

◊ The 1976 Time magazine article on the winning California wines said they were “rather expensive ($6 plus).”

◊ Although Chateau Montelena Winery is in the Napa Valley, most grapes for the winning Chardonnay came from neighboring Sonoma County (Russian River and Alexander Valleys).

◊ The blend for the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon included — surprise — 1% Pinot Noir.

◊ At the Paris Tasting of the Chardonnays, two other California wineries beat out French competitors: the 1974 Chalone Vineyard finished third and the 1973 Spring Mountain Vineyard was fourth.

Jeffrey Cohen is the Wine Specialist at The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch. He can be reached at jcohen@cordilleraranch.com or 210.677.9234.

Graham House is the Clubhouse and Lodging Manager at The Clubs of Cordillera Ranch. He can be reached at ghouse@cordilleraranch.com or 830.336.9164.