Our Judgement of Paris: A Celebration of the Wine Tasting that Shocked the World.

Two score and two years ago, a group of wine experts were assembled to judge wines at the Paris Wine Tasting. The results of which sent a shockwave throughout the wine world.  We don't have those exact wines, but we thought we'd do a little recreation of our own, and 10% off the whole lineup. This sale runs from 5/21/18-5/27/18.

Ever since Somm came into the zeitgeist, there has been a popular fascination with the tasting ability of wine professionals.  Those who engage in the rigorous path towards certification, either in the Wines & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) or Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) are taught to professionally identify and assess wine, an extraordinary task for which few truly have the time or money to master. Some can manage to even identify soil type and the vintage along with varietal. 

Wine is a tricky thing, and despite our quest to be objective, subjectivity often plays more of a role than we think. What happens when our preconceptions get flipped upside down?

In the wine world, America can track its increased visibility and reputation down to almost a single event, The Judgement of Paris.

Don't Know Much About History?

François Xavier Pascal Fabre "Judgement of Paris"

François Xavier Pascal Fabre "Judgement of Paris"

Growing up the son of a classics major, my main exposure to the Judgement of Paris revolved around a similar test. It all started with an apple.

Eris, goddess of discord, was not invited along to a wedding between Peleus and Thetis, though many Greek gods were in attendance.  So Eris crashed the party with a golden apple, and the idea that it would be awarded as prize to the most beautiful goddess. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the prize and Zeus, rather than face the enmity of his wife and the other Greek goddesses, he chose Paris of Troy to be the unbiased judge.  Hera offered Paris power over all of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and martial skill, and Aphrodite offered Paris the most beautiful mortal, Helen of Sparta.

Now if any of this is starting to sound familiar--you've either also read your fair share of Greek myths, saw Troy or had to read The Illiad in high school or college. Paris chose Helen, who was already married to Menelaus and that tipped off the Trojan War.  

So what does all of that have to do with wine? Well this Judgement of Paris also turned a lot of heads and caused a lot of drama.

Image courtesy of Bella Spurrier.  Image Source

Image courtesy of Bella Spurrier. Image Source

On the 24th of May, 1976, Steven Spurrier organized a blind wine tasting in Paris. A British wine merchant by trade, Spurrier specialized in selling French wine, and assembled a panel of 11 judges, 9 of which were French, to assess which wine was fairest of them all.

France had some of the top wines in the world at the time, and some of their most famous producers were part of the proceedings; including Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Haut-Brion, and Château Montrose.  Spurrier also wanted to showcase Napa Valley wines including Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Heitz Wine Cellars Martha's Vineyard, and Clos Du Val Winery.  This was all part of a time where France was unchallenged in its winemaking prowess. Bordeaux and Burgundy were shorthand for excellence.

But when the blind tasting was over the judges found that the Californian wine had won, both for their Cabernets and for their Chardonnay.  Odette Kahn, head of Revue du vin de France (The French Wine Review), was so shocked that she demanded her ballot back lest anyone see her scores.

Patricia Gallagher (from left), who first proposed the tasting; wine merchant Steven Spurrier; and influential French wine editor Odette Kahn.Image courtesy of Bella Spurrier.  Image Source

Patricia Gallagher (from left), who first proposed the tasting; wine merchant Steven Spurrier; and influential French wine editor Odette Kahn.Image courtesy of Bella Spurrier. Image Source

You had to be there. Nobody thought it was going to be a competition. Only one journalist even bothered showing up, a George Taber from Time Magazine, who ended up giving the Paris Wine Tasting its now infamous name.  

It's a great story, and it transformed how the world viewed wine production. That the new kids on the block could stand toe-to-toe with some of the old world best was promising to winemakers both in the United States and other places around the world.

It was a win for Stag's Leap, but it wasn't a landslide. The average of all the ballots found that Stag's Leap beat out Château Mouton-Rothschild by .05 points.  Still, that the American wine held its own was distinction among itself.

They also tasted Napa Valley Chardonnay against the vaunted French Burgundy, which again resulted in a win for the American producers, this time  Chateau Montelena.

Our very own "Judgement of Paris"

Unfortunately, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion aren't exactly affordable wines, but we liked the idea of the blind taste test that caused a shift in the balance of the wine world so much that we devised our own.  Remember, like the original blind tasting, there is no real winner, and tastes can shift from day to day. While California Pinot Noir wasn't tested in the original, we've included it here because its become a big player in the American wine scene.

Some of the vineyards at Melville Winery.

Some of the vineyards at Melville Winery.

We start in the Santa Rita Hills, an AVA established in 2001 in the northeast of Santa Barbara County. Now considered a fantastic region for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Santa Rita grew its first Pinot Noir vineyards the same year as the Judgement of Paris, in 1976 by the Sanford Winery.  Now, some 2500 acres of Pinot Noir vineyards exist in what's known as Sta. Rita Hills, and we have the 2014 Estate Pinot Noir from Melville Winery.

Melville is a family owned and operated winery, that was established in 1989 and originally had holdings in Sonoma County's Knights Valley, before Ron Melville moved the winery to Sta. Rita Hills in 1996 with a desire to grow cold climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.  The 2014 Estate Pinot Noir includes all of the 16 clones of Pinot Noir grown on their sandy soil dominated winery, and 40% of the wine is fermented whole cluster, with the majority destemmed. The wine is then aged in neutral (over 10 year old French barrels) oak for 11 months. The result is a complex wine that opens up like a proper Burgundy should, and a great demonstration of what Sta. Rita Hills has to offer.

The 2014 Estate Chardonnay is also planted on sandy soils, but aged 8 months in neutral oak. Melville had established a reputation for reductive (more fruit-forward) styles, but this shows a movement toward more classic expression of Chardonnay, with no malolactic or sur lie aging. The result is a fresh styled white, with none of the overdriven oak that has become synonymous with California Chardonnay.

To handle the French end of the spectrum of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, we're showcasing Chablis and Marsannay.  Chablis, while not part of the main strip of areas that make up Burgundy, is classified as Burgundy nonetheless, and we're thrilled to have the Vaugiraut Premier Cru from Domaine Oudin. Sourced from 70 year old vines grown on southern facing clay and limestone soil, the Vaugiraut is a Chablis par excellence, with little sulfites and only natural yeasts used before resting sur lie for one year.  

Marsannay is one of the northern-most regions in Burgundy proper, part of the Côte de Nuits region that lies directly below Dijon. Very rarely can the words affordable and "red Burgundy" appear in the same sentence along with words like "quality" but the Domaine Bart Marsannay Les Finottes checks all of those boxes. A winery that spans over six generations, Domaine Bart is leading the charge in making Marsannay gain Premier Cru status. The Finottes (the same word from which we get "finesse") is a monopole lieu-dit (named vineyard) just north of Marsannay proper. It includes some vines that are 100 years old, and again prominently features sandy soils and the cool climate that is so important for good Pinot Noir growth. 

Southwest of Burgundy is France's other famous wine region, Bordeaux.  While the American political divide is often simplified to left vs right, Bordeaux has a whole other left versus right regarding the banks of the Garonne River, and the wines that come from either side.  We are featuring the Chateau Pierre Taix La Mauriane, which hails from Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion on the river's right bank.  This side of the river is often seen as the best means to get into Bordeaux, as the wines are more fruit driven and less tannic than their left bank counterparts.  

Overlooking the Garonne River in Bordeaux.

Overlooking the Garonne River in Bordeaux.

At its most simple, the distinction between the two is due to the dominance of the varietals used. In the Left Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon reigns supreme, where on the Right Bank, Merlot presides over all.  There's also a matter of soil types and other variables, but that's a lesson for another day. La Mauriane is farmed organically, with over 80 year old vines that make up its blend of 75% Merlot 20% Cabernet Franc and 5 % Cabernet Sauvignon. 

A look at the vineyards at Savage Grace.

A look at the vineyards at Savage Grace.


North of California and Oregon lies the wine region of Washington state. We're here in the Yakima Valley, the oldest AVA of the Pacific Northwest where we find the Savage Grace Winery, founded in 2011 by Michael Savage and his wife, Grace Hearn.  The Yakima Valley is part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA, an area that only sees an average of 6-8 inches of rain a year. For reference, the Gobi desert sees about 7.5 inches of rain a year.  The dry land makes the vines struggle to survive, a Darwinian concept that more and more winemakers see as a boon for wine quality.  Their Red Willow single vineyard  Cabernet Sauvignon is partially destemmed and whole cluster fermented before 12 months aging in oak (of which 20% is new) and only 1,620 bottles were produced in the 2014 vintage.

We're very excited about this lineup, and even more excited that we can put them all at a discount. Swing by from Monday - Wednesday to try the lineup, but the 10% discount will apply all week.


The Fine Print:

Melville 2014 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Chardonnay -  ̶$̶2̶9̶.̶9̶9̶  $26.99

Domaine Oudin Vaugiraut Chablis Premier Crub 2016 -  ̶$̶4̶4̶.̶9̶9̶  $40.49

Melville 2014 Sta. Rita Hills Estate Pinot Noir -  ̶$̶3̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $35.99

Domaine Bart Marsannay Les Finottes -  ̶$̶2̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $26.99

Savage Grace Red Willow Vineyard Cabernet - $̶3̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $35.99

Chateau Pierre Taix La Mauriane - $̶3̶9̶.̶9̶9̶ $35.99

Further reading:

NPR Feature on the Judgement of Paris

A Feature Interview with Pierre Bart of Domaine Bart

A Feature Interview with Nathalie Oudin of Domaine Oudin

Wine Folly Feature on Washington AVAs