Stunned. Shocked. Incroyable! It is May 24, 1976, and the conference hall at the Hotel Intercontinental in Paris is just beginning to buzz at the now-legendary blind tasting that pitted California Chardonnays and Cabernets against some of France’s classic white Burgundies and red Bordeaux.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes came to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in the 1800s. Yet beyond a few savvy insiders — the likes of Gustave Niebaum at Inglenook, Prussian emigre Charles Krug, André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu — the wines of Napa and Sonoma were not widely known. To French oenophiles, California wine was not worthy of a discussion.
The Chardonnays pour first. Among the esteemed French entries are 1973 Meursault Charmes, a 1973 Beaune Clos des Mouches, and a 1973 Bâtard-Montrachet; of the six American candidates, four hail from the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. As tuxedoed waiters with unlabeled bottles patiently stand by, the judges swirl, sniff and sip each vintage, occasionally gasping in both admiration and exasperation. They seem absolutely sure; the French wines are nuanced and superior, and the American ones, interesting but unbalanced…
This, of course, wasn’t the first time Napa and Sonoma vintners had been underestimated. In fact, only 30 years after Charles Krug established its first winery, northern Californian viticulture nearly disappeared: The same root louse that ravaged European vineyards arrived in Napa in 1890 and eventually destroyed 80% of its vines. And, just as the vines were reestablished, Prohibition was passed, driving more than 95% of the region’s wineries into bankruptcy in the 1930s. And yet, just 40 years later…
Back in Paris as the all-French panel of 11 judges submit their scores and chat as they await the flight of reds, the organizers make an announcement: Chateau Montelena of Napa Valley has won the Chardonnay tasting. In fact, three of the top four whites are from California. A few gasps fill the room, and the judges shift in their seats and exchange sidelong looks of consternation. If French Chardonnay was defeated, could Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon dethrone the fabled, historic reds from Bordeaux?
When the scores were tallied, the answer was an emphatic yes! A 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley bested all other red wines and won the competition. Overnight, California wines were on every connoisseur’s lips.
The Paris Tasting of 1976 — the so-called ‘Judgment of Paris’ — was a defining victory for Napa and Sonoma winemakers. The now legendary event is an ode to resilience and belief embedded in the very fabric of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys and the world-class wines produced here.