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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses the Judgment of Paris, a monumental event that changed American wine culture forever. Beavers details the history of how the tasting — which compared American and French wines — led to the worldwide recognition of Napa Valley.
Listeners will learn about trailblazers who planned the tasting — including Patricia Gustad-Gallagher and Joanne Dickinson DePuy, without whom the Judgement of Paris could have never occurred. Beavers also explains how George Tabor’s Time Magazine article boosted the event’s impact by painting what was meant to be a friendly tasting as an intense wine competition.
Tune in to learn more about the Judgment of Paris.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and you know what I love about “Star Wars”? Well, a lot of things. But No. 1, it’s an ongoing story. It’s not an adaptation.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to episode 27 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. It’s Season 2. I’m the tastings director of VinePair. What are you guys doing today? What’s going on today?
OK. This one, guys? This story is awesome, complicated, and foggy. We’re going to clear it up. It’s important. Let’s do this. Judgment of Paris.
Here we are, wine lovers. We talk about the history of American wine and when I’m talking about wine regions, I often mention this moment in our history where I call it the watershed moment. The moment where we as an American wine- drinking culture started really coming back from Prohibition. Prohibition really messed us up, guys! It really messed us up. A decade, 10 years, of illegal alcohol. That is just crazy.
When it was repealed, there were still so many problems. Every state has its own liquor laws. It’s insane. For us as a drinking culture, man, it took us a while to get back to what we were doing before Prohibition. From the Gold Rush until Prohibition, we were on track to be one of the major wine-producing regions in the world. Then, we had 10 years of Prohibition that messed all that up. We had to rebuild our wine industry after that.
The people in Napa got started pretty quickly. In the 1940s, they created something called the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which is still around today. They started conceiving of a wine region that was more than just a regular wine region. It was more of a fine-wine region. We had the whole Napa episode from last season, but none of this would have been possible. I mean, I’m sure at some point it would, but it was expedited. Our clout on the world stage was expedited by one event called the Judgment of Paris in 1976. In the early days after Prohibition, between the mid- and late 1930s, there were a bunch of winemakers really trying to recreate what they had lost 10 years earlier. One of those wineries was Beaulieu Vineyards, which is down in what is today Rutherford. It was owned by Georges de Latour and his wife, Fernande. The two of them were looking to get some young, new energy into this wine region that they loved so much.
They ended up going to France and convincing a man by the name of André Tchelistcheff to leave his very important work in France and come over to the United States. He was to help consult with them and make wine in a way that the region hadn’t seen before. André Tchelistcheff went on to be the most important winemaker in Napa, in California, and probably the United States.
His story is awesome, and I can’t get into all of it here, but what’s important about him, and about what we’re talking about today, is his influence on the winemakers that were making wine in the late 1960s and early ‘70s in Napa Valley. One of the most important roles André Tchelistcheff had besides making wine and being innovative about winemaking processes, is mentoring the future of winemaking in Napa. That is what was happening in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Now, I’m not sure how familiar you are with this event called the Judgment of Paris. I mean, it’s an intense name for an event. It’s actually Greek mythology, but the term the Judgment of Paris was conceived by a man named George Tabor. He was a journalist for Time Magazine, and he wrote a story about an event that he witnessed in Paris. This event, which he called the Judgment of Paris, was really just an educational wine tasting with California wines and French wines as a comparative thing. That right there is what is important about what this event did.
It wasn’t so much the story in Time Magazine as it was what actually happened. What is known as the Judgment of Paris in 1976 only happened because of two figures. In the early ‘70s, a young American from Delaware by the name of Patricia Gustad-Gallagher was in Paris working for the International Herald Tribune. Obviously, she started to develop a passion for wine in Paris. I mean, that makes sense.
In 1971, she answered a classified ad for the release of the new Beaujolais Nouveau. And the way she puts it, she arrives at this place and she sees this guy unloading a ton of Beaujolais Nouveau from his station wagon. He had apparently driven from Beaujolais to Paris overnight to have it in his store. The store was called Academie du Vin, which was also a wine school, and this was the perfect opportunity. I don’t know if Patricia knew what she was getting herself into, but she and Steven Spurrier became very good friends.
She began to work at his shop and the wine school. One of the focuses of their work were the tastings they would do. I’m not sure if they were monthly or annually, but they would do these big educational tastings through the ‘70s and I’m not sure how this worked out, but Patricia did have a sister in San Diego. I’m not sure if that’s how it happened, but she started hearing rumblings of good wine being made in Northern California.
Patricia had this proud American thing going on. She really wanted to show and share American wines with the people in the Academie du Vin. Unfortunately, the wines that were provided by the embassy just weren’t wines they wanted to share with the French. Also, as an American in 1975, she saw that in 1976 the bicentennial was coming up, so she conceived this grand idea. Where were these fabled northern Californian wines?
Napa was not being imported to France at this time, so she needed to find those wines because she had this really cool idea. She was going to get all these French wine experts in a room, and she was going to do a comparative tasting with French wine and American wine. Not to show who is better than the other, but just to show that the United States is making pretty amazing wine. She was determined to make this happen, brought the idea up to Steven Spurrier, who thought it was a great idea. So what does she do about it?
She went to California to visit her sister in San Diego and tacked on a few days in Northern California to see what was going on up there. At the time, in Napa, there was a very famous wine writer by the name of Robert Finnegan. He had a newsletter called Private Wine Guide. He was basically the guy before Robert Parker. She reached out to him. He recommended a bunch of wineries. She went to taste mostly in Napa. She really liked everything she tasted mostly, but two wineries really stood out to her. It was Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. She also enjoyed wine from Freemark Abbey, a very historic winery in California.
She goes back to Paris, talks to Steve about what she experienced, and Steve gets very excited about all this. So he and his wife Bella decide that they’re going to go to California and experience it for themselves. This is in 1976, which is months before this whole event is supposed to go down.
Joanne Dickinson DePuy had lived in Napa Valley since 1949. In 1973, she was getting a divorce. Her kids were grown, and she thought, “I never really held a full-time job. I’ve only had a part-time job at a travel agency. I have to figure out my life.” She’s quoted as saying that she was going to give herself six months to figure it out. She loved two things: tennis and wine.
Then, she decided to launch two businesses, a wine tour company, and a tennis tour company. Now, I don’t know what happened to the tennis tour company, but I do know about the wine tour company, which is pretty amazing. Her idea, which I think is pretty innovative in the 1970s for what she wanted to do, was she wanted to bridge Napa to other wine regions and vice versa — meaning she wanted to take winemakers from Napa to places in other countries to see how wine is made and how their cultures are. She wanted to take people from other countries, specifically France, from their countries to Napa and show them Napa. It’s a bridge to both, which is a pretty amazing idea.
It was going pretty well. She convinced the secretary of state of California to lead a tour to China. Her clout was rising. In 1976, when Steven and Bella Spurrier wanted to come to Northern California to see what was going on, she’s the person they called. Joanne DePuy takes the couple to Chateau Montelena, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Freemark Abbey, and other places. Actually, the Spurriers declined a visit to the Mondavi Estate because they wanted to find winemakers that were still under the radar. Yeah, Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars were under the radar. Woah.
The Spurriers bought a bunch of wine — 24 bottles from different wineries — and they were going to have these wines sent over to France for this little thing they were doing. Patricia was stoked. Now, for Joanne and her company, one of the bucket-list situations she wanted was to get André Tchelistcheff, the famous winemaker who was still around mentoring everybody — the big deal — to do one of these tours. It took some doing, but she finally convinced him to do a vintners-only tour to France.
Since André Tchelistcheff was leading this, it attracted some of the most well-known winemakers in Napa at the time. Two of those people were the owners of Chateau Montelena, Jim and Laura Barrett. They were there just because of André Tchelistcheff. It was just pure coincidence that their wine was being brought to France for a tasting. Right before Joanne was about to take these vintners on a tour, she gets a call from Steven Spurrier in France saying, “Oh, no, the wines are not going to clear customs. Would it be OK if you guys could each put a bottle or two in your luggage to bring it over to help us out?” Joanne said, “Yeah, we can do that.”
Now, it was a lot more difficult than that, but she was able to wrap all these wines up in boxes and convince the people at TWA to put these on the plane and really try to get them over there safely. One bottle ended up breaking. It was a Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon, but that’s OK because that wine was still tasted in the tasting.
I wonder what was going through Jim and Laura Barrett’s minds. One of their wines is now with them going on a plane to Paris, which they will eventually go off into France and just have a tour of French vineyards, mostly in Bordeaux, and their wines are going to stay in Paris. In Paris, I’m sure that Steven and Patricia are sighing with relief. Steven Spurrier is trying to find press that would cover this thing, because it’s a big deal. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was a big deal. Patricia thought it was a big deal to her. Her family was a colonial family in the United States, so it was a big deal.
They managed to get one person to attend the event from the media, a man by the name of George Taber with Time Magazine. Now, this is where things got a little weird, mainly for Patricia. I am not really sure how Steven Spurrier took it, but the panel of wine experts that were asked to be part of this tasting were some of the most popular and well-known wine critics in France. It was one of the reasons why Steven Spurrier was trying to get media attention for it, but they weren’t judges. They were just experts. This was supposed to be just a fun, comparative tasting that was hopefully going to get some media attention and would be really cool to show how American wines were faring these days.
It was to be a blind tasting. Whites being blinded against whites. Reds are being blinded against reds from each country. Of course, the American wines were from Napa, and the French wines were from Burgundy and Bordeaux, white and red. As this tasting progressed, George Taber, the media guy, saw something. He didn’t see these wine experts as experts doing a comparative fun educational tasting. He said, “Oh, my gosh, this is a blind tasting.”.
He saw it as a competition, and he saw these wine experts as judges. This guy would go on to write an article in Time Magazine about what he witnessed and then because of the impact of this particular event in American culture, he ended up writing a book and calling it “The Judgment of Paris.”
Even though it was an educational tasting, these wine experts were taking notes. They were actually taking scores, and this is what you do in tastings. You score wines, and it’s not necessarily a competition-based idea for scoring as it is for you to understand your own preferences. What got really crazy is when people started realizing that the American wines were being scored higher than the French wines.
In Taber’s book, he describes tension in the room, a little bit of frustration, murmuring, people wondering what was going on, not understanding what was happening. On a side table, scores were being tallied up. I don’t know that these scores were meant specifically for winners and losers, but George Taber saw it like that. He was noticing something pretty fascinating. He was looking at the top 10 whites and the top 10 reds, and he was losing his mind.
The No. 1 white wine in a blind comparative tasting between French Chardonnays and American Chardonnays, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay came in at No. 1. Chalone Vineyards 1974 Chardonnay comes in third. Spring Mountain Chardonnay 1973 comes in fourth. Freemark Abbey Chardonnay 1972 comes in sixth. Veedercrest Vineyards 1972 comes in ninth, and David Bruce Winery Chardonnay 1973 comes in 10th.
Then, over in the red, things really got crazy. The No. 1 red, according to the scores, was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon. Number 5 was Ridge Vineyards 1971 Cabernet Sauvignon. Number 7 was Mayacamas Vineyard 1971. Number 8 is Clos du Val Winery 1972. Number 9 was Heitz Wine Cellars 1970, and Freemark Abbey 1969 was No. 10.
On the surface, wow, right? It was supposed to be just this fun, educational, momentous event with experts tasting wine from France and the United States and understanding the difference between the two to see where the United States is on the map right now. Since George Taber and Steven Spurrier were working together to make this into a media event, it started to look like a competition. To the point where one of the judges, Odette Khan, who was one of the most famous wine critics in France at the time, demanded her scores back because she was worried that this is going to be a competition and not an educated tasting. Then, she worried her results were going to be published and she was going to have to deal with the fallout of that.
According to Patricia, she was also very upset with this idea. She thought, “Wait, what’s happening?” She had conceived of this entire thing. This is her idea and it was being turned into a competition when she conceived of it as a fun, educational, comparative tasting. Alas, George Taber would write a very good piece about this event in Time Magazine, but he framed it as a competition of the Old World versus the New World. Thus, that massive statement made a huge impact on the American wine-drinking culture.
It didn’t really have a big impact on France because no one thought of it as a competition. What’s interesting is George Taber ran the call, the winemakers that had won. It just so happened that Laura and Jim Barrett, the owners of Chateau Montelena, were actually in Bordeaux at the time with André Tchelistcheff. They got a phone call at a restaurant they were at, and they thought something was wrong but turns out they found out they “won,” and they lost their minds. They thought it was really cool. I mean, you imagine being a winemaker in the United States, in Northern California. There are no wine regions, you are just making wine, and you try to make it the best you can. Then, all of a sudden there’s this event happening in Paris, and your wine is going to Paris, but you don’t really know what it means. You happen to be in France when you get a phone call saying the wine that you sent out to Paris actually became No. 1 in a comparative tasting that ended up being a competition? Yeah, I’d be pretty stoked.
What I find really wonderful about some of the “winners” of this Judgment of Paris, is those winemakers were the winemakers that were mentored by André Tchelistcheff. Full circle, people. Very cool.
That was in 1976. By 1980, Napa was the second AVA to be awarded in the United States, and that began the new era of wine in the United States, bringing us into the modern culture that we have now. Fun little side note here: Thirty years later, they opened up the same vintages again to see how they were aging. Again, the American wines came out on top.
This was a big moment for us in the history of American wine. This is huge! The fact that it happened and palates thought that these wines were superior or just beautiful in general is such a big deal. If it wasn’t for Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher and Steven Spurrier working together with this awesome idea that she conceived of, and if it wasn’t for Joanne DePuy of the international wine tours in California, this would never have happened. The wines that were on this list, that were in this tasting, are today some of the most famous wineries in the United States.
These winemakers would go on to mentor other people, and this is how we grew as an American wine culture and how we’re still growing today. The history of wine in America is such a fascinating story. This is just one little gold nugget of awesomeness that helped us on our journey.
I want to give a big shout-out to my father-in-law. He and my mother-in-law live in Petaluma, and he sends me wine information all the time that he reads in the newspapers. In 2018, he sent me an article by Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle about Patricia and Joanne. It’s because of that article that this episode happened and the way the story has been told. Thank you, Dean Dizikes. Keep sending those communiqués.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now for some totally awesome credits.
“Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.