Paris has lent its name to some of history’s important international moments. There was the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war between Great Britain and the United States, and, much more recently, the Paris agreement, which last year committed almost every country in the world to addressing climate change. In between those two, there was the so-called Judgment of Paris, the outcome of which was once described as a “vinous shot heard round the world.”
On May 24, 1976, a group of French wine experts gathered in the capital for a blind wine tasting. The event was organized by Steven Spurrier, a British sommelier who ran a wine school and shop in the center of town. American visitors had brought him wine from California, and Spurrier became curious to see how it would stand up to French wines, regarded as the best in the world. Spurrier and the judges, as well as other sommeliers and observers, went into the tasting thinking the California offerings didn’t stand a chance, and that the tasters would be able to discern the flavors even when their identities were hidden.
But that’s not what happened. Here is the dispatch from the only reporter present at the tasting, George Taber of TIME magazine:
As they swirled, sniffed, sipped and spat, some judges were instantly able to separate an imported upstart from an aristocrat. More often, the panel was confused. “Ah, back to France!” exclaimed Oliver after sipping a 1972 Chardonnay from the Napa Valley. “That is definitely California. It has no nose,” said another judge—after downing a Batard Montrachet ‘73. Other comments included such Gallic gems as “this is nervous and agreeable,” “a good nose but not too much in the mouth,” and “this soars out of the ordinary.”
When all that swirling, sniffing, and sipping was over, the judges had picked reds and whites from little-known wineries in California’s Napa Valley over ones from France’s renowned Burgundy region as the winners of the taste test. A 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon bested a 1970 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and three other Bordeauxes. A 1973 Chateau Montelena topped a Meursault Charmes Roulot of the same year. Two other California Chardonnays also ranked higher than their French counterparts.