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Book Review – Judgement of Paris, By George M. Taber

By May 8, 2012No Comments

France has always been the country that the rest of the wine world looks towards when aiming to make the best wine. In 2009, a group of New Zealand Gimblett Gravels wine producers put up a selection of wines alongside some of the best Bordeaux reds. Of course the New Zealand wine industry rejoiced when the Kiwi wines were compared as being not too dissimilar if not in the same league. Quelle horreur, the wines could never be described as being better! This is not the first time that the French have taken a dive in such circumstances, the precedent being The ‘Judgement of Paris’, a tasting where Californian wines were judged against French in 1976. The outcome of which the Californian wines were seen as better than the French, is now regarded as one of the defining moments in the world of fine wine.

This book is the story of the ‘Judgement of Paris’ published to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the event, by the only journalist who attended the event – George M. Taber. The book is sub-titled ‘California vs France and The Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine’. The book is more than just a recounting of the events, and for that, the book is a great read for anyone who is interested in wine with a global perspective. It describes the history and setting of French dominance in the fine wine sector and the beginnings of the modern Californian wine scene. The book examines how the ‘Judgement of Paris’ has affected the present and the author discusses the continued the implications for the future.

The man who organised this critical event was Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who set himself up as a wine merchant in Paris. His ‘Academie du Vin’ wine courses attracted keen wine buyers and one of the ways to attract and keep clientele, as well as amuse and educate himself was to run tastings of top class and interesting wines. As a way to celebrate America’s bi-centenary, a selection of Californian Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignons were tasted alongside French white burgundies and Bordeaux reds, blind, with a panel of French experts. The result is now famous as the event that knocked the French off their pedestal, and instilled confidence in Californian winegrowers and winemakers throughout the world to aspire to make world-class wines.

Telling Spurrier’s story and examining his motives, Taber also pens biographies of Mike Grgich who made the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973, and Warren Winiarski who made the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1973, the wines which topped their categories, ahead of the French examples. In doing so, he backgrounds how the wines were made, detailing the winemaking process, in language that a layperson in the world of wine can understand It’s like ‘Winemaking 101′ and is a refresher foe wine knowledgeable people. Key figures such as Chateau Montelena’s owner Jim Barrett, Andre Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi are also met in the scene setting. By focussing on the people and their personalities, the book certainly has a human and more intimate feel.

A very even hand is taken by Taber, and he gives both the Californian and French sides credit as well as critiques their situation. He is not judgemental.an presents the detail in an unemotive, objective fashion, and this approach lends credibility. This makes the latter part of the book, his discussion of the current world scene as interesting as the history and description of the tasting itself. The issue of ‘globalization’ is studied and in doing so, he visits regions of significance, including Blenheim in Marlborough, the Barossa Valley and Margaret River, Stellenbosch in South Africa, Pinhao in Portugal, Puente Alto in Chile and the Willamette Valley in Oregon describing developments. And finally, Taber revisits France and California, noting the changes in outlook.

The ‘Judgement of Paris’ has been popularised by the 2008 film ‘Bottle Shock’ which takes a few liberties to ensure its appeal to a wider audience. This book is a must-read to get the full and accurate story.
Judgement of Paris, By George M. Taber
Scribner, New York, 2005, ISBN 0-7432-9732-5
RRP US$16.00

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