Feature photo by Benjamin Tardif
Thirty-five years ago this month, the Judgment of Paris happened. Such a name evokes a gravitas yielding bloodied images of guillotines, drawing and quartering, and perhaps burning at the stake. But the year was 1976, not 1776. And yet, for the French, something tantamount to public execution happened: American wines beat their wines in a double-blind tasting. Given the poor state of the French wine industry right now, one could argue that this Judgment did involve bloodshed.
A lone reporter from Time magazine covered the event. He was the only press there, for it seemed a foregone conclusion that the French would win and as such, worthy of no more than a yawn. In his book on the Judgment, he – George M. Taber – recalls the moment when he couldn’t believe what he was seeing:
“About halfway through the white wine part of the competition, I began to notice something quite shocking. I had a list of the wines and realized that the judges [who were without a list and doing a blind tasting] were getting confused! They were identifying a French wine as a California one and vice versa.”
These elite judges, men and women representing the best palettes France had to offer at the time, assumed the best wines of the blind tasting were French. Taber knew differently as he had the list of wines in his very hands. Taber goes on:
“Raymond Oliver, the owner and chef of the Grand Véfour restaurant in Paris, one of the temples of French haute cuisine, swirled a white wine in his glass, held it up to the light to examine the pale straw color, smelled it, and then tasted it. After a pause he said, ‘Ah, back to France!’ I checked my list of wines to be sure, but Oliver had in fact just tasted a 1972 Freemark Abby from California’s Napa Valley! Soon after, Claude Dubois-Millet of GaultMillau, a publisher of French food and wine books and magazines, tasted another white wine, and said with great confidence, ‘That is definitely California. It has no nose.’”
We can guess the end of this story. The wine ended up being one of the best wines France produces. But on that day as well as a couple years later when the blind tasting was conducted again, American wines won out. Decades later, as we all well know, America still has some of the best wines in the world.
While this true story has strands of American exceptionalism or perhaps just a classic case of luck (depending on how you define it) or the fruits of hard work married with talent and skill or however you want to define it, it is also a cautionary tale concerning the power of the all-seeing eye. In a less dramatic version, this is a pedestrian story about how humble we should be, no matter if we’re some of the best tasters in the history of the world, when it comes to blind tastings.
One way of conducting your own blind tasting is to not just cover up the bottles but to cover up the glass as well. Whether you have a magic marker or a blindfold, are dining in the dark at one of the dark restaurants of the world or have a blind tasting glass (there are many to choose from), you can strengthen your own wine sense. It’s one of the best workouts you can do for your palette. Cheers!