The Judgment of Paris – Beyond Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena

Phpto credit: Side Hustle Wino

The Judgment of Paris, was a pivotal moment in history. It had such a monumental impact on the California wine industry that, on the the 30th Anniversary of the event, the House of Representatives passed a Concurrent Resolution, officially documenting it’s place in American history. The Smithsonian also recognizes the significance having placed a bottle of the Stag’s Leap 1973 SLV Cabernet Sauvignon, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, photographs, artifacts, and documents from the event at the Museum of American History.

My love of wine is not just about the beverage. I love wine because it has played a prominent role in the history of the world, and so it stands to reason that I can’t get enough of events like the Judgment of Paris. I started this post in 2019, after a visit to Stag’s Leap, but I could never get my thoughts condensed enough to make a readable post. It has sat in my drafts folder for nearly 2 years. This week marked the 45th anniversary of the event, and I happened upon the Wine For Normal People podcast on the subject, and it inspired me to finally sit down and make it happen.

If you don’t know, the Judgment of Paris was a blind tasting event that put, at the time, completely unknown California wines against some of France’s finest producers. California won, shocking the world. Here are the official results of just the red wines. I apologize for the poor quality of the photos, they were taken by yours truly at the Stag’s Leap Tasting Room. A complete list of the red and white wines follows near the bottom of the article.

As with any monumental moment in history, there is controversy. There are those we credit the event as the most important one in modern American wine. There are others who are complete critics and conspiracy theorists. Personally, I think the significance can’t be argued. It happened the way it happened, and while hindsight is 20/20, sitting here 45 years later and trying to discredit it based on what we know today, is really just ridiculous.

I think the Judgment of Paris solidifies the best use of a blind tasting which is to leave preconceived notions at the door. If you don’t know what you are tasting, you can only use the taste of the wine to judge it, which is the only unbiased way to do it isn’t it? There is a life lesson here.

Just for fun, check out this letter to Stag’s Leap from the Academie Du Vin in 1976 – it is not only old school typewritten, it asks the Warniarskis to contact Bob Royce at Chateau Montelena to let them now of the request for wine and to look for a telegram on Monday. I love this little peak into customs of the past, including the fact that someone from France is flying over to pick up and carry the wine back across the ocean as “hand luggage.” We’ve come a long way technology wise haven’t we?

Photo credit: Side Hustle Wino, from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Tasting Room

Most people only think of Napa when they think of the Judgment of Paris, and rightly so because people rarely remember what happened beyond first place. But, there is so much more to the story. Even mildly enthusiastic wine lovers know that Stag’s Leap is “the wine” that put Napa on the world wide stage. Unless a Chardonnay drinker, I’ve found that event Chateau Montelena is not widely known. Did you know that there was also a solid representation of other California regions, like Santa Cruz and Sonoma? Wait. Sonoma? Yep.

According to the Bacigalupi Vineyard website, the majority of the 40 tons of grapes used for the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay came from what is now considered Sonoma. Twenty tons from a grower in Alexander Valley, and another 14 tons came from the Bacigalupi Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. The remaining grapes – only 5 tons – came from two different Napa Valley growers. Even though AVA designations did not exist in 1973, or 1976, I hate that Sonoma is completely left out of the conversation for the Judgment of Paris.

In 1981, several California AVAs were born, Napa, Sonoma, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Of the twelve wines represented at the event, three hailed from the Santa Cruz Mountains. In fact, at a re-enactment of the tasting, which occurred for the 30th anniversary, the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello, came in first with both groups of blind tasters. Ridge is located in Santa Cruz and had placed 5th in the original tasting.

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

The other thing that has always struck me as odd, is that there were 12 California wines versus 7 French wines. Why not have an even number of wines represented from each region? It might have had to do with the fact that Steven Spurrier, the man who came up with this event, wasn’t necessarily trying to showcase the California wines. He was a British man who owned and operated a wine shop and wine school in Paris. No one thought the California wines would be chosen over the French ones, and maybe he was trying to give California favor in terms of odds if nothing else. For some reason, I personally would prefer if the number of options from each region were equal.

The results were a shock to everyone, including him. This event alone would make him a wine legend, but Steven Spurrier went on to add much more to the world of wine before he passed away in March of this year. What a legacy he created while he was here among us.

Here are the lists of the red and white wines that were blind tasted on May 24, 1776 in Paris.

French Reds
  • Château Montrose 1970
  • Château Haut-Brion 1970
  • Château Leoville Las Cases 1971
California Reds
  • Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
  • Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
  • Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard 1970
  • Clos Du Val Winery 1972
  • Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
  • Freemark Abbey Winery 1969
French Whites
  • Meursault Charmes Roulot 1973
  • Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin 1973
  • Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon 1973
  • Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive 1972
California Whites
  • Chateau Montelena 1973
  • Chalone Vineyard 1974
  • Spring Mountain Vineyard 1973
  • Freemark Abbey Winery 1972
  • Veedercrest Vineyards 1972
  • David Bruce Winery 1973

This event was thought to be silly, comical really, and only one American journalist bothered to travel to Paris to cover it. His name was George Taber, and if you are really intrigued, I highly recommend the book Judgment of Paris, by George Taber. As mentioned above, Elizabeth Schneider, and husband, really do a great job of breaking down the historical aspects, the potential flaws, who the judges were – it’s really worth a listen. If you can’t listen, check out her show notes which have a ton of information and useful links.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/wine-for-normal-people/id413879919?i=1000522975355

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