On page 58 of the June 7th, 1976 issue of Time Magazine a short story titled, “The Judgement of Paris” changed the face of California wine forever. At the bottom of the Modern Living section and overshadowed by a tire advertisement was written, “Last week in Paris at a formal wine tasting …. the unthinkable happened: California defeated all Gaul”.
Such were the words of George Taber, the lone journalist at the event who reported that nine French judges selected a California Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars to be the best of the tasting. Even when tasted next to some of the best French wines, including Bordeaux’s famous Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Burgundy’s Domaine Roulot, the California wines came out on top. Perhaps realizing the significance of the affair, one French judge demanded that her scorecard be returned.
These judges were in for a surprise.
Today Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are synonymous with California wine. The decades following the Paris tasting resulted in a barrage of new plantings as the public’s thirst for these wines grew. However, this wasn’t always so. Immediately after Prohibition, California had only 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted and almost no acres of Chardonnay. Not until the second half of the 20th century did varietally labeled wines made from grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot become the standard bearers of California wine.
From its early days as a missionary outpost all the way up to ‘76, California prided itself as one of the world’s best producers of good quality, cheap wine. Indeed, many of us who were born in the 60s and 70s remember jugs of generic wine called Chablis or Burgundy standing sturdily on the shelves in our parents liquor cabinets. These wines bore little resemblance to authentic Chablis or Burgundy (from France) and were made from a mishmashof grapes that could quite literally be anything under the sun. If the wine was red it might have been made from Zinfandel, Grenache, Mataro, Mission, Carignan, Cinsault, Alicante, and the list goes on and on. To be sure, nothing was (or is) wrong with these grapes, but everything was wrong with the process. The name of the wine was determined by the way the wine was manufactured to look and taste, and not by the grapes that were in it or where they were grown.
California has come a long way from “Chablis” in a jug.
Looking back this seems little ridiculous. Today’s wine producing regions in California are vast and unique. Each possesses its own character of place, making itself particularly suitable for one grape or another. On these soils many talented farmers work the land to develop the best possible fruit and its winemakers produce some of the most compelling wines the world has to offer. 90+ Cellars is a global label, but we love California wine. We spend more time visiting the state than any other wine region, and we’ve had the good fortune of meeting many of the men and women responsible for the state’s great success. As much as we embrace the traditions of the French, the diversity of Italy, the purity of Germany, and the romance of Spain, we still like rooting for the home team.
Got California in your mind? Here’s a quick list of 6 wines you should seriously think about getting your hands on.
Do you have a favorite California wine? Horror stories about jug wine from the 1970s? Share them with us in the comments!