Judgment of Paris: Its Impact on the Present and Future
Wine and travel writer Brian Freedman realizes the lasting impacts of the famous Paris Tasting on the world of wine while blind tasting in Pennsylvania.
by Brian Freedman / photos by Staci Anderson (Swell)
The author, Brian Freedman, pouring wine at the annual Pennsylvania Sommelier Judgment blind tasting event.
Forty-five years ago, on May 24, 1976, the famous Judgment of Paris took place. Its impact has been well documented—the book “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine,” by George M. Taber, is excellent, and the film Bottle Shock, for all its flaws (see: that closing monologue!), is an entertaining romp that in may ways opens up the world of wine in a particularly successful way to a non-professional audience…plus, anything is better with Alan Rickman in it.
Even today, the Judgment of Paris remains a benchmark for how profoundly affecting competitions can be, and how long-lived the results can become. It’s impossible to open up a bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay without someone (okay, I’m often that person) mentioning how it defeated icons like the Roulot Meursault Charmes, the Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles, and others; or a bottle of Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon without mention of its victory over greats like Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Montrose, and more.
Of course, a lot has changed since the mid-70s in both countries—in the entire world of wine, in fact. Quality, for example, has never been higher at all price points. But the most lasting impact of the Judgment of Paris is the fact that wine consumers and professionals around the planet learned that turning their nose up at wine from a perhaps less-famous or less-venerated region just didn’t make sense anymore: If the so-called California upstarts could upstage the “big boys” of Bordeaux, then anything was possible.
This was driven home to me earlier in the summer when I was invited to serve as a judge, alongside other sommeliers and wine pros, at the annual Pennsylvania Sommelier Judgment.
I was born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, and though my father has been a serious wine collector since before I was born, yet wines from my home state were never part of his cellar. It makes sense: His focus has always primarily been on California, France, and Italy, though today it’s branched out in a thousand different directions, from Portugal and Argentina to New Zealand, Australia, Oregon, and all points in between. But not Pennsylvania.
I get it: With so many other world-class wine regions dotting the globe, it made the most sense to focus on established ones. Why buy Pennsylvania Chambourcin when you could buy Gevry-Chambertin?
Today, however, there are absolutely fantastic wines being produced around the country and throughout the world, and from places and grape varieties that might not initially seem like obvious hits. The Pennsylvania Sommelier Judgment, like the Judgment of Paris 45 years earlier, brought that home in a particularly delicious manner.
Over the course of two sessions—one in the morning and another after lunch—my colleagues and I tasted through several dozen wines from across Pennsylvania, working our way along a selection of wines that ran the gamut from dry to sweet, still to sparkling, and virtually every vinous permutation in between. As with any tasting of such a broad array of wines, some spoke to us with more profundity than others…yet the vast majority were expressive, smartly crafted, and representative of both the land in which they were grown and the vision of the winemakers who brought them to life.
In the end, the top wines represented a fantastic swath of grape varieties and styles. The Galen Glen Winery “Stone Cellar” Gewurztraminer 2020 was vibrant and lifted; the Penns Woods Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2017 exhibited layers of complexity and the potential to evolve beautifully in the cellar; Stony Run Winery’s Albariño 2019 proved yet again how well this particular grape variety can do in PA; the Mazza Vineyards South Shore Wine Company Pet-Nat Riesling NV was downright gulpable. This kind of vinous diversity in one state was beautiful and eye-opening to experience. Even as a professional, I was surprised and charmed time and again that day.
And throughout it all, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the judges in Paris all those decades ago felt a similar jolt of joy when tasting (blind, of course, like we did in PA) wines that weren’t yet widely accepted on the world stage. I’d imagine it was a similar sensation.
When Steven Spurrier, who sadly passed away this past March, put together his tasting back in 1976, he didn’t expect it to shake the very foundations of the world of wine. Yet that’s exactly what it did. Over the course of a legendary career, Spurrier achieved more in his lifetime in wine than most. Yet I’d argue that one of the most important lasting impacts of his work is the fact that he opened up the world of wine in ways that it hadn’t been before. California was an upstart once, too.
If history is any guide, then it will be fascinating to see how the less-famous regions of today are looked at 45 years from now. I have a feeling they won’t be such underdogs for long. Best to start learning about them now, and get ahead of the inevitable—and delicious—curve.