The walls of screenwriter Robert Kamen’s writing studio, which is perched on stilts in the middle of his steep-sloped Sonoma vineyard, are festooned with framed posters for his many blockbuster movies—Karate Kid, Lethal Weapon III, Taken I, II, and III. Kamen, who’s been producing his own very good wines for 20-odd years, has made his career out of such action-packed films. He also wrote screenplays for Columbiana, Bandidas, The Fifth Element, and The Transporter.
But the script for his next movie won’t involve anyone getting his teeth kicked in—only stained red. From wine.
Kamen has penned a screenplay based on the real-life “The Judgment of Paris,” a now-legendary blind tasting that pitted California chardonnays and cabernets against some of France’s classic white Burgundies and red Bordeaux. When their scores were tallied, the all-French team of illustrious judges was stunned to discover they’d ranked the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley ahead of the best of France.
May 24 is the 40th anniversary of the event, and the two winning wineries have been celebrating ever since (just take a look at their websites). The pair of hallowed bottles are even enshrined at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., classed among the “101 Objects that Made America.”
The event has spawned a book (Judgment of Paris), a previous movie (Bottle Shock), and 10th, 20th, and 30th anniversary reenactments. Next week the Smithsonian will host the winners for tastingsin Washington , and the hoopla has even drawn in the Congressional Wine Caucus. Apparently both Republicans and Democrats agree on one thing: They’re willing to drink the same wines.
A Lingering Obsession
Cynics might say it’s time to give this long-ago wine event a rest. For one thing, all the whites, as well as many of the reds, from vintages 1969 to 1973 are over the hill. The latest celebrations seem like a last-gasp senior golf tour whose participants are trying to prove they can still make it around 18 holes.
The real question is: Why is the world still obsessed with this tasting?
As we careen alarmingly around Kamen’s vineyard in his all-terrain vehicle (writers of big-screen thrillers apparently scorn seat belts), he shouts an answer—“The tasting launched the fine wine industry in California! It changed the wine world forever!”
Well, yes, it did.
The tasting began as a public relations promo for English wine merchant Steven Spurrier’s Paris wine shop, Les Caves de la Madeleine, and its next door wine school, L’Academie du Vin. He and his American sidekick Patricia Gallagher aimed to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial by demonstrating just how far California’s new boutique wineries have come in their quest to catch up with France. Spurrier traveled to California to select six whites and six reds to show off to a who’s who of the French wine world.
Worried that the snobbish French judges would dismiss the California wines outright, Spurrier decided at the last minute to make the event at the city’s Hotel Intercontinental a blind tasting and added in some top French wines from the shelves in his shop. He assumed the French wines would win.
When they didn’t, it was a seismic surprise to him and the judges, who called foul. One demanded he give back her score sheet.
Luckily for the Californians, French-speaking Time magazine reporter George Taber was there to chronicle the results and the judges’ confusion and remarks.
When his piece, “The Judgment of Paris,” ran in Time magazine a couple of weeks later, the story had an electrifying effect. More than just a blow to haughty French producers, it proved to be a turning point, giving California upstarts confidence that they, too, could make outstanding wines. This, in turn, inspired New World winemakers globally.
A Changed Industry
It was a paradigm shift for the way Americans, especially Francophile New Yorkers, thought of California wine. Overnight, its image as jug wine was banished.
“It was the final nail in the coffin of Prohibition,” said Bo Barrett, whose late father founded Chateau Montelena. He participated in a 40th anniversary tasting earlier this year at the Naples Winter Wine Festival in Florida. His point was that the lingering effect of Prohibition had slowed the renewal of Americans’ interest in both drinking wine and producing it.
And the reverberations haven’t stopped.
David Hamburger, events director for New York wine retailer Acker Merrill & Condit, gets regular requests for Judgment of Paris-inspired tastings, such as one he staged at Marea a month ago for a wine-loving corporate client and his guests. “Old world vs. new world is a great theme,” he says. “People like the competition aspect. We handed out score cards.”
After seeing Bottle Shock, a U.K.-based collector paid more than $11,000 for one of the few remaining bottles of 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay at auction. At the recent Naples Wine Auction in January, a lot that included the ultra-rare 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet went for $120,000.
In Napa, the winning wineries are holding open houses on May 24. A Judgment of Paris “Passport” provides entrée to special experiences at five of the Napa wineries whose wines were in the tasting.
No 40th anniversary celebrations are pouring original vintages, though the 1971 Ridge Montebello, the winner of a 30th anniversary recreation, is still alive and kicking. If you want to make a little California tasting of your own in honor of the 1976 event, I recommend these more recent vintages of the same wines:
2011 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay ($65)
This rich, creamy-textured white, with its aromas of white flowers and lemon and spice taste, will surprise people who think all California chardonnays are super oaky.
2012 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars SLV Cabernet Sauvignon ($125)
Flavors of cassis, smoke, and luscious bright fruit combine in this elegant red.
2012 Ridge Monte Bello ($190)
This great, classic cabernet has deep fruit and sophisticated savor and can age for decades.
2013 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($40)
This exceptional value is a complex of opulent fruit and powerful tannin.