On Aug. 8, at a theater near you, the story of the Judgment of Paris (not the Greek myth) will be on display. Long the provenance of wine geeks, this is the tale of Steven Spurrier, an energetic British citizen whose career training took place at Christopher & Company, England's oldest wine merchant. By 1970, he had opened his own shop in Paris. Les Caves de la Madeleine quickly gained recognition as a first-rate store, run by the energetic, quixotic Francophile.
In 1976, perhaps in part a publicity stunt, and in confluence with America's 200th birthday, he decided that a blind tasting of French and California wines—to show off each one's merits—would be a fun idea. The French obviously agreed. It would be yet another medium in which to express the superiority of French wines—especially concerning any California upstarts.
Well, the rest is history, and a tidal wave of folklore has grown from it. Utilizing an all-French panel of nine distinguished judges, the results revealed a Napa Valley Cabernet besting famous Bordeaux reds. A Napa Chardonnay did the same compared to venerable Burgundy offerings. No manner of bluster or post-tasting apologies could escape the raw truth: The panel not only found many California wines superior, but even mistook many of these offerings as French. "Ah, back to France!" exclaimed judge Raymond Oliver as he swirled and sipped a Napa Chardonnay. "This is definitely California, it has no nose" spouted another judge as he sipped a Batard-Montrachet.
Yet I never imagined that this event, important as it was for California's emerging credibility, could be fodder for a feature-length film. A documentary? Surely. But this tale, adored by industry insiders worldwide, and now a movie, Bottle Shock, makes one wonder what Hollywood will do to spice it up.
A blind wine tasting is about as romantic to watch as a Mahjong tournament. Here are folks sniffing, drinking and spitting. (Special effects and slow motion might enhance the expectoration.)
Sex? I can imagine a bit of hanky-panky amid the dark, humid, aging barrels or a post-contest romantic interlude at the Place de l'Opera. Plus, I've seen the movie's trailer. In it, there are couples kissing amid the vines and a pretty young thing taking off her T-shirt in an attempt to flag a ride from a passing car. (Shades of Claudette Colbert's leg in It Happened One Night.) But the vehicle turns out to be a police car. Oops, my bad.
Bottle Shock centers on the Barrett family and their estate, Chateau Montelena, a great California cult winery that was having a hard time staying afloat in the mid-'70s. The Judgment at Paris actually helped them turn their business around. And thank goodness. It was their Chardonnay that won big in Paris and, as a wine-lover with three bottles of their now even more celebrated Cabernet in my cellar, I'm a beneficiary. Real life arguments persist as to who was really responsible for Montelena's '76 success: the winery owners or radical winemaker Mike Grgich? This remains a sore point to this very day. (Rumor has it that Danny DeVito plays a cameo as Grgich.)
Prominent actors in the film include Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman and Rachael Taylor, with former Law and Order cop Dennis Farina spouting home-grown wine logic. Hunk Freddy Rodriguez and sultry Eliza Dushku round out the main cast.
I had a reality check when I read the original Time magazine article written shortly after the tasting:
"The U.S. winners are little known to wine lovers. ... and rather expensive ($6+)." Oh boy, life and prices were awfully good in the '70s.
I'm hoping against hope that this will not be a jingoistic film where America conquers France. It's fair to ask why the French wine coterie ever agreed to such an event. Chutzpah and history, I imagine, but there remains a lesson that French winemakers know, and that American winemakers should keep on the front burner. During the past 30 years, America's explosive emergence among the new world order of great winemaking is a dynamic story. But, last time I checked, the wines that garner bids of thousands of dollars a bottle at auction are still French. They remain the gold standard, like it or not, that they've always been. Plus ça change ...
Some people joked after the death of American folk artist Grandma Moses at 101 that "The good die young." This same loving obituary could be juxtaposed to the recent death of Robert Mondavi, who passed peacefully in his sleep just shy of his 95th birthday.
Would someone else have stepped forward if Mondavi had not been around to spell out why California wine can equal the world's finest? Probably. Would someone else have possessed the indefatigable energy, communicative skills and irrepressible joy that he exuded? Probably not.
I never met Mondavi, but he almost seemed like a member of the family. He and I have two obvious things in common: We are first generation Italian-Americans and share a profound love of wine. Whereas my father was born in Florence, Mondavi's dad came from the tiny village of Sassoferrato in the region known as Le Marche, east of Tuscany. Mondavi resembled my Great Uncle Cesare, which somehow made me feel closer to him.
One hundred years from now, two names, both Italian, will head any listed recollection of California's wine odyssey: Gallo and Mondavi.
Gallo (especially from 1950-80) represented quality "everyday" table wine. My Uncle Marcello, a lifelong resident of Florence, visited America in the '60s and '70s. He remarked upon, and much preferred, Gallo's Hearty Burgundy to the vino da tavola of his native land.
Mondavi represented a break from "everyday," always aspiring for perfection. Studying the European model of fine wine-craft hands-on, and then constantly applying it toward a unique Napa Valley identity, he established his enduring legacy. This singular mission became a journey that eventually split him off from his mother and brother in an infamous 1960s feud. Long before his lionized days—those "When Robert Mondavi speaks, people listen" days—he preached the California gospel to any who would listen. When the results of his philosophy came streaming out in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris, he had been stating the obvious for more than a decade.
Great wine and California wine became synonymous. This is Mondavi's legacy. While many have built California dreams in the ensuing 40 years, Mondavi was the original architect.
When I last wrote about Bonterra Vineyards in October 2005, I referred to them as a great winery that just happens to be certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers. What a difference in demand three years make! How many thousands more Americans now search exclusively for organically produced wines? Bonterra is a great first stop if you haven't already joined the trend. I recently sampled their current releases, and here are the best of the bunch:
2007 Sauvignon Blanc, $14
A honeydew, citrus and guava basketful. Lip smacking, double-edged refreshment with lingering, engulfing energy.
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, $16
Heady, leafy seductive black currant. As direct as an arrow in flight. Firm, focused flavor with light tannic bite and well balanced fruit. Drink 2009-11.
2005 Syrah, $16
Dark tallow, bacon and cave floor fecundity. Serious earthbound sensations. Substantial, well-rounded plummy flavors. Solid yet lavish texture. It resonates.
2004 The McNab, $45
Old money richness. Cedar, spicy iron and iodine components in a densely packaged fruit compote. High toned, with superb balance and luxuriant, calm flavors. Long, edgeless aftertaste. (Sixty percent Merlot, 26 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 14 percent Petite Sirah.) Drink now-2013.
2007 Muscat, $16 (375 ml)
Honeyed grape impressions plus caramel and toffee. Like eating a handful of overripe fruit. Lingering sweetness but light on its feet.
2006 Chardonnay, $14
Wrap-around pear and apple-imbued oak with inviting richness and depth. Smooth entry with spicy oak liveliness. Generous and complex.
Correction: In last month's column, the rating for the 2004 Columbia Crest Reserve Syrah should have read (), not .
E-mail Arturo at firstname.lastname@example.org.