British Entrepreneur Shattered French Wine Pretension

(p. A23) The world was paying little attention on May 24, 1976, when a small wine tasting was held in Paris at the Intercontinental Hotel. But the echoes of that tasting, later called the Judgment of Paris, have resounded for decades.

The instigator, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop and wine school in Paris, had set up a blind tasting of 20 wines — 10 white and 10 red — for nine French judges, including some of the top names in the French wine and food establishment.

. . .

It was hardly thought to be a fair fight. As has been recounted countless times, the judges were thoroughly convinced that California wines were inferior.

“Ah, back to France,” one judge sighed after tasting a Napa Valley chardonnay. Another, sniffing a Bâtard-Montrachet, declared: “This is definitely California. It has no nose.”

When all was done, a shocking consensus revealed the favorite wines to be a 1973 chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1973 cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Cellars, both in Napa Valley.

The Americans celebrated, the French shrank in consternation, and everlasting fame awaited Mr. Spurrier, who went on to a long career as a wine entrepreneur.

. . .

The Paris tasting might have swiftly been forgotten had not a single reporter, George M. Taber of Time magazine, been on hand to witness the events. His article, “Judgment of Paris,” gave the California wine industry a much-needed boost, lending its vintners international credibility at a time when they were searching for critical approval and public acceptance.

. . .

Mr. Taber, the reporter, in 2005 published a book, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.” A 2008 film, “Bottle Shock,” with Alan Rickman playing Mr. Spurrier, depicted the tasting as the climax of a triumph-of-the-underdog story.

. . .

As for Mr. Spurrier, he leveraged the tasting into different careers in wine, with both triumphs and failures.

. . .

In 1987, the Spurriers bought a farm in Dorset near the south coast of England, and he decided that the chalk soil, similar to what can be found in Champagne and Chablis, was a perfect place for vines.

They did not start planting until 2009, by which time a burgeoning sparkling wine industry had taken root in southern England. Their sparkling wine, Bride Valley, had its first release in 2014.

For the full obituary, see:

Eric Asimov. “Steven Spurrier, 79, a Merchant Who Upended the Wine World With a Taste Test.” The New York Times (Thursday, March 18, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated March 18, 2021, and has the title “Steven Spurrier, Who Upended Wine World With a Tasting, Dies at 79.”)

The Tabar book mentioned above is:

Taber, George M. Judgment of Paris: California Vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. New York: Scribner, 2005.

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