Steven Spurrier, a British graduate of the London School of Economics moved to Paris in 1964 with 14 years of experience at Christopher and purchased a wine shop of the Rue Royale from an elderly woman. The shop, Les Caves de la Madeleine, became widely respected and he pioneered allowing clients to taste before buying. In 1973, he founded L’Academie du Vin, the first wine school in France. As California wines were becoming talked about and quality was improving he decided to hold a tasting comparing both French and American Cabernets and Chardonnays to see if the American wines could hold up to the French Bordeaux’s and Burgundies.
The competition was held on May 24, 1976 and were it not for a slow news days might have gone unnoticed had it not been for George M. Tabor it might have gone unnoticed for a long time, which the French would have likely preferred. Tabor heard of the tasting comparing wines of the two countries at the Intercontinental Hotel and as it turned out was the only reporter to cover it.
While the story is a remarkable one, the movie, Bottle Shock had nothing to do with the tasting and everything to do with Hollywood’s perception of it. Tabor had even threatened to sue and probably should have as its inconsistencies, as with the later film Sideways, made both irrelevant, although the former increased demand both at home and abroad for California wines, and the latter, uplifted Pinot Noir (driving prices to the moon, Alice, the moon!), and decimating demand for Merlot (this despite the fact that there were some excellent Merlot’s but much of it was plonk). Suddenly Pinot was at eye level and Merlot relegated to the bottom shelf.
Some misconceptions about the tasting: first, Spurrier, a lover of French wines, never intended it to be a competition but merely to see if California wines were similar in quality to the French. In order to lessen the competition over which was better, no official rating scale was used, merely 20 points per wine to awarded as the tasters chose. All the tasters came with strong credentials and were French, except for Spurrier, and an American, Patirica Gallagher, who was with Spurrier’s l’Acadamie du Vin. Neither of their scores were counted but that is a moot point because as a rule they were never the best or the worst scores but at least impartiality was achieved.
One French judge, Odette Kahn, editor of La Revue of France was so embarrassed by how she ranked two of the California Cabs above three top Bordeaux that she demanded her scores be removed and called the tasting a charade… nevertheless her scores were published and computed in the results.
Here are the combined results of the wines highlighting best and worst of each country (Individual ratings for white wines were not provided in the book or in the article:
|Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars ’73 Cab||1||16.5//10||16.5//10|
|Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello ’71 Cab||5||17//7||17//7|
|Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cab ’70||7||17//2||15//7|
|Clos Du Val Winery ’72 Cab||8||14//2||14//2|
|Mayacamas ’71 Cab||9||14//3||14//3|
|Freemark Abbey ’69 Cab||10||15×2//5||15//5|
|Ch. Mouton-Rothschild ’70 2nd Gr Pauillac*||2||16×2//11||16//11|
|Ch. Montrose ’70 2nd growth St. Estèphe||3||17//11×2||17//11×2|
|Ch. Haut-Brion ’70 1st Gr Pessac-Graves||4||17×2//8||17×2//14|
|Ch. Leoville-Las Cases ’71 1er Growth St. Julien||6||14//8||12×4//8|
|Ch. Montelena -’73 Chard (Grgich) Napa||1|
|Chalone ’74 Chard Pinnicales||3|
|Spring Mtn ’73 Chard Napa||4|
|Freemark Abbey ’72 Chard Napa||6|
|Veedercrest ’72 Chard Napa||9|
|David Bruce ’73 Chard Santa Cruz||10|
|Meursault Charmes Roulot ’73||2|
|Beaune Clos de Mouches J. Drouhin ’73||5|
|Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Dom Leflaive ’72||8|
Individual ratings for white wines were not provided in the book or in the article
(Spurrier made every effort to keep the tasting unbiased by excusing himself and his employee Patricia Gallagher from the ranking but they would not have influenced the results as only with one wine did they outscore the French and by only one position (1 vs 2), and in no case did they post the lowest.)
The French had complained that Bordeaux wines take longer to age than California and that is why the red wines from California are 1970 and the French, 1970, and excellent year and only one 1970 while the California wines were all 1970, also an excellent year. Oddly, subsequent tastings using the 20-point UC Davis scoring system, including the 30th Anniversary tasting in 2006, showed the California wines all improving in quality while the French either held but most deteriorated.
TB’s take: This is just one more example of why YOU, dear reader, are your own best wine taster. Imagine for a moment having one of those judges for dinner and trying to impress them with a wine that Parker or some other bloke gave a 90, and they didn’t like it! You just blew a lot of money and got embarrassed to boot. Why not serve a wine that YOU like and simply say “this is one of my favorite wines, I hope you enjoy it.” Hey, if they don’t like it they aren’t out any money…nor are you!
I will close with this:
“People spend too much time tasting wine; not enough time drinking it.” Andre Tschelistheff
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