The Controversy Lingers Around Foreign Wine Tasting Competitions : Authorities Disagree Over Validity of Results

Nathan Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

American wine consumers are being saturated with results and statistics from a variety of American versus foreign wine tasting competitions. Especially in vogue are contests pitting $15 to $20 upper-crust California Cabernet Sauvignon against entrenched $50 first-growth Bordeaux.

Among wine authorities opinion appears to be evenly split along national lines as to whether these contests are useful or reliable. Californians say yes and the French say a strong no. One of the most discussed tastings was the Paris tasting of 1977 when Steven Spurrier, a European wine merchant, invited celebrated French tasters to evaluate 1974 California Cabernet against 1974 claret. The so-called American triumph was an unfair exercise since the '74 harvest represented one of California's finest, while the '74 claret vintage was one of its poorest. No matter, the victory brought international respect to California wines.

Latest Battle

Since then, California versus French duels have become a favored marketing tool of many domestic vintners, including Robert Mondavi, Bill Jekel and William Hill. American wine makers quite understandably are elated upon hearing of the latest conquest, but for the protesting French it is an offense that borders on war.

In the latest battle, Hill of William Hill Winery is trumpeting the results of a Dallas tasting, appropriately named "The Showdown in Texas," wherein his Cabernet, 1978, topped Chateau Latour and Mouton-Rothschild, 1978. A similar result occurred with the 1979 and 1980 vintages when Hill's wine placed ahead of Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild. Only in the 1981 vintage did Hill come in second to Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild.

Such results persuade consumers into believing that Hill's Cabernets are better values than Premier claret, which is precisely his point. He does not say that his wines are necessarily better, only of better value. The French on the other hand contend that several years down the road when their wines are mature and complex, prices will escalate to the tune of several hundred dollars, while Hill's wines as even one American authority suggests may not mature as well, nor appreciate much in value.

Aging ability is really not the issue here. Enough wine from major Cabernet producers such as Beaulieu, Inglenook, Hallcrest, Charles Krug, Louis Martini and a host of others confirm the lovely complex nuances of 20-, 30-, even 50-year-old bottles that are a joy. Some "Cab" oldies from my cellar have fooled not a few French wine lovers into believing they were drinking credentialled claret.

Only a Gimmick?

Frank Prial, New York Times wine columnist and a Los Angeles County Fair judge, claims such taste confrontations are nothing more than a gimmick and a bad taste test. He said, "What Hill is doing is not unusual but it is not really comparative tasting. It's called positioning. If the consumer can be made to associate William Hill wines with first-growth Bordeaux, so much the better for Mr. Hill. He will have joined the immortals at a very low membership fee. It's like those automobile commercials that say, more trunk space than the legendary BMW, even if the car in question is powered by squirrels on a treadmill, the association has been made."

Other authorities summarily dismiss the tastings as strictly apples versus oranges tests that tend to mislead. Wines grown in France with a less accommodating sun than California develop a different, less over-powering style than California's higher alcohol, rich, marvelously fruity, fully ripened wines.

It is interesting to note that the American challenge is always directed to labels of the French elite. I have yet to see publicized contest like California versus Italian, Spanish or even lesser French bottlings. Indeed some California wineries are reluctant to compete against their own, which, of course, is more to the point.

'Infinite Flavors'

Obviously, Hill thinks otherwise. "This type of tasting is educational to the wine maker as well as the consumer," he explained. "I learn, as do consumers, more about grape vinification techniques and Cabernet's infinite flavors when I make these comparisons. Hill's Cabernet and first-growth claret are in direct competition. If they want to keep their title, they are going to have to defend it.

"By means of a comparative tasting," he continues, "the buyers and sellers of wine are given the opportunity to decide which wines in any such comparison they themselves like, consider good values and will purchase. And since wine is a consumer product in which perceived value and pricing play a major role in the sale, better to share our winery tastings than with members of the wine consuming public."

Hill was especially frosted at the concept that certain French immortal wines ought to be placed on a kind of never-to-be-challenged pedestal. "As for doing more public comparative tastings with such wines," he elaborated, "I don't think that is a gimmick. I can well understand how the French don't want to be bothered with comparative tastings until their wines have crawled out of their regal hibernation some undisclosed number of years hence."

On the question of whether his or other California wines can age and sustain nuance and taste for similarly lengthy periods as claret, Hill becomes even more strident. "Certain California Cabernet Sauvignons from well-drained vineyards in ideal climate zones are not only made to improve in the bottle after release, but also possess the fine flavor and balance to earn international praise and acceptance as so-called classic or great wines. To suggest that all French wines age well is misleading and on the same level of deception as it is to represent that all California wines do not age because many already have--and exceedingly well."

A Landmark Bottle

In my judgment, neither Hill nor any other American vintner has to resort to comparison taste promos. His 1978 Cabernet is a landmark bottle capable of additional aging, perhaps the best of the vintage in a soft, supple, enveloping, seductive, mouth filling style that brings admiration from both sides of the Atlantic. Several years ago, I hand-carried it to Bordeaux for a luncheon with major claret producers. After tasting it, several ruefully commented that if many California reds get any better than this, they were in for trouble.

According to Hill, high-quality reds and those with aging potential should show intense concentrated flavors, high levels of natural acidity, good balance of components, ideal level of ripeness, adequate tannin and alcohol and the absence of objectionable flaws or faults and rich flavors. That is true, but it seems to me both California Cabernet and claret are capable of meeting that kind of a taste standard.

There ought to be a better promotional idea for California vintners who need to be convinced once and for all that their product is good without having to knock French wines. Continued comparison tasting is a public admission of the insecurity of the new kid on the block and forestalls the true coming of age of California wine.

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