French Wine Makers Get a Taste of Second Place

The year: 1976.

The event: the Paris Tasting.

The participants: some of France's leading wine experts.

The purpose: to taste and compare the best of French and California wines.

The winner: California.

The reaction: quelle horreur !

It was one of the low points in Franco-American relations. The French, especially proud about their wines, reacted swiftly, offering a hasty explanation for the tasting results: French wines, they said, were not made to be consumed young. In 10 years, when properly aged, the French red wines would come out on top, they predicted.

But it wasn't to be. In a recent rematch of the same wines 10 years later, the French got clobbered again.

The original Paris Tasting, as it has come to be known, was ballyhooed worldwide, providing previously underrated California wines with instant, worldwide respectability and giving the fledgling industry here a huge boost.

Voted best by the panelists participating in the 1976 blind tasting in Paris was an upstart 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stag's Leap Vineyard in Napa, Calif.

But it was another California wine that came out the winner earlier this month in the rematch at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco--a 1970 Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley Martha's Vineyard ($100 a bottle).

And there were other surprises from the panel of experts assembled by the Wine Spectator, the San Francisco-based publication that will detail results of the tasting in its April 1 edition:

- The Stag's Leap ($125), which had dazzled the French tasters in 1976, came in fourth, below three other California wines.

- The Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Red Bordeaux Pauillac 1970 ($175), the highest-ranked French wine at the Paris Tasting, came in seventh in a field of 10.

- The highest-scoring French wine at the recent tasting, a Chateau Montrose Red Bordeaux St.-Estephe 1970 ($45), was ranked sixth behind five California wines, although one of the French wines, a Chateau Haut-Brion Red Bordeaux Pauillac 1970 ($175), had oxidized slightly, perhaps from improper storing, and so was not given a fair test. It ranked last.

Stephen Spurrier, an Englishman who runs the Parisian wine school, Academie Du Vin, hadn't come to California in 1976 with the idea of a showdown in mind. But after touring a number of California vineyards and tasting a number of what he considered excellent vintages, he began wondering how California wines would stack up against the French competition.

So in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial, Spurrier decided to host a blind tasting to see what French experts thought of the best of California wines.

The tasting marked the start of a new era in which French and American wine makers began to acknowledge they could learn a lot from each other. At the time, few French wine makers had studied California's industry.

But now, Spurrier told the Wine Spectator, "Every single (French wine maker) worth anything has either been to California or wants to go to California, and is certainly aware of what is going on there."

Some French wine makers have gone into joint ventures with California wineries since 1976, including Mouton-Rothschild's Baron Phillipe-Rothschild, who has joined with California's Robert Mondavi Vineyards in making premium wine under the Opus label.

All the wineries that produced the red wines sampled in Paris are still thriving, and their wines, they say, are as good or better than ever. "Our wines keep getting a little better," said Rollie Heitz of Heitz Cellar. "It's a slow, gradual process, but we're still improving."

Winery owners also say that the effect of tastings like Spurrier's has definitely been felt by the California wine industry. "It gave us recognition which sure didn't hurt," Heitz said.

The growing stature of California wineries has coincided with growing wine consumption in the United States. According to Impact, a wine and spirits newsletter, per capita wine consumption by persons over 21 in the United States was 2.15 gallons in 1970. By 1984, that figure had risen by more than 50%, to 3.42 gallons per person, per year.

And it is not just the California wine industry that has benefited. According to Impact's statistics, in 1970, 2.8 million cases of French table wine was imported to the United States. In 1985, partly due to the strong dollar, 11.7 million cases were imported, prompting California wineries to press unsuccessfully for protectionist legislation against the imports.

Virtually no one is still questioning California's ability to make superb wines. Nevertheless, Wine Spectator Editor Harvey Steiman believed a second tasting was important to dispel lingering doubts. "In Paris, people said that if the tasting was held 10 years later, the results would be very different because it takes that long for French wines to mature. We wanted to see if that was true," he said.

Steiman, whose newspaper does weekly tastings of both French and California wines, used four tasters from his own staff. Although Steiman said he could not afford to fly in French wine experts for the tasting, he did invite two Bordeaux experts--both San Francisco collectors--to judge.

"You could argue they have French palates, " he said. "We didn't have any French tasters but, then, they didn't have any American tasters in Paris."

Five of the six tasters ranked the intense, fragrant Heitz Cabernet as the No. 1 wine, which they agreed was "at its peak or close to it." The tasters agreed that both the Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Mountain 1971 ($75 and ranked second) and the Chateau Montrose Bordeaux St.-Estephe 1970 (ranked sixth) will continue to get better as they mature, while they felt the Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1969 ($75 and ranked ninth) was "a bit tired now." The famous Stag's Leap Cabernet, which won the Paris Tasting, they considered "at its prime or just past it."

Ranked third was the Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon California Monte Bello Estate Grown 1971 ($75) and taking fifth place was Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1972 ($22.50). Chateau Leoville-Las Cases Red Bordeaux St.-Julien 1971 ($40) came in eighth.

The tasting was held partly to celebrate the Wine Spectator's 10th anniversary. After Steiman decided on the idea, he put staff member Ray Bush to work tracking down the wines.

In the end, Bush had to hound distributors, wine shops and even private collectors. "The (Chateau) Leoville (Las Cases Red Bordeaux St.-Julien 1971,) was the most difficult to find. I had to call wine shops in New York and Washington, D.C. to see if they had it. I finally got it from a distributor in Los Angeles."

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