Friday, April 30, 2010
All changed in the wine world in 1976 when a little-known proprietor of a Paris wine store and adjoining school (the Academy of Wine) staged a blind tasting competition between the world's best French and California wines.
At the time, the California challengers were considered poseurs at best. French noses sniffed at the thought that any California wine (or non-French wine, for that matter) could seriously challenge their whites and reds. Somehow Steven Spurrier, the shop/school owner, persuaded the world's leading wine authorities to judge the competition, which he labeled merely a tasting to take stock of American wine in the year of the Bicentennial.
To everyone's shock, California's wines beat their French rivals in both the white and the red categories, and the world of wine has never been the same.
There is a terrific movie about the whole 1976 brouhaha that led to an explosion of great wine—not only in California but also Chile, Argentina, Australia, and many other countries. That movie is Bottle Shock, and it plays about once a year on the cable movie channels. But you can buy your very own copy, if you're nuts about wine.
The 2008 movie, which stars Alan Rickman as the bumbling but energetic Spurrier, takes a few liberties with the actual story, but that's pretty typical. It's an engaging story, particularly about those heady days in California wine country in the early 1970s when U.S. wine went from rotgut to respectable.
If after watching the movie, you want to get the real story of the day that shocked the wine world, read the book written by the one journalist who was present on that day in 1976. The book is Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine, by George M. Taber, a reporter for Time magazine.
You have to wonder how long the California wine industry would have waited for respectability had Taber not decided to stroll over to the tasting that morning in July 1976.