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The Judgment of Paris Turns 40

On  May 24, 1976, the seemingly impossible happened. Though French wines ruled the world, two upstart California producers triumphed over first-growth and other renowned bottlings from Bordeaux and Burgundy at a blind tasting judged by France’s foremost wine experts. Dubbed the Judgment of Paris, the event put Napa Valley among the world’s great wine regions. Today, you can taste that history by visiting four wineries with deep connections to this historic event.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1973
Photo by Robert McClenahan

The Connection: Warren Winiarski founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1970. His 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon was the winning red at the 1976 tasting.

Marcus Notaro, winemaker at Stag’s Leap since 2013, recently tasted the ’73 Cab.

“It still had this really nice red currant and cedary-spicy notes with some tobacco,” he says. “You see these characteristics in our younger wines as well.”

At the new Fay Outlook & Visitor Center, special tastings in May will showcase both library wines and barrel samples. Memorabilia include a bottle of the 1973 Cab and copies of the judges’ score sheets. The 2013 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon (scheduled to release on May 1) bears a throwback label designed after its victorious predecessor.

Chateau Montelena Winery

Chateau Montelena
Photo courtesy Chateau Montelena Winery

The Connection: The 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was the winning white at the Paris Tasting.

Chateau Montelena Winery produced its 1973 Chardonnay to improve cash flow because its newly planted Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards would not yield quality wine for several years. Today, two-thirds of Chateau Montelena’s production is Cabernet, and the combination of estate vineyard soils deliver wines with a distinct sense of place. Or, as CEO Bo Barrett says, “Nobody can copy this dirt.” Tasting rooms in the grand 1888 manse showcase Judgment of Paris keepsakes, including a bottle of the victorious white, the congratulatory telegram from France and newspaper clippings.

Grgich Hills Estate

Miljenko "Mike" Grgich
Photo courtesy Grgich Hills Estate

The Connection: Founder/owner Miljenko “Mike” Grgich (below) was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena Winery who crafted the winning Chardonnay.

When The New York Times called Grgich in 1976 to discuss the victory, the recent émigré from communist Yugoslavia at first thought he was in trouble with the authorities. The resulting acclaim encouraged Grgich to found his own winery in 1977. Each year, he produces a reserve-style Paris Tasting Commemorative Chardonnay priced at his current age—$93 for the 2016 release. Grgich just published his autobiography, A Glass Full of Miracles (Violetta Press, 2016).

Gustavo Wine

The Connection: Gustavo Brambila began work as cellar master at Chateau Montelena Winery just three weeks before the Paris results were announced. A lead character in Bottle Shock, the 2008 film about the tasting, is based on his experiences.

The son of an immigrant vineyard worker from Mexico, Brambila was one of the first Latino graduates from the oenology program at UC-Davis. He worked with Mike Grgich at Grgich Hills for 23 years before starting his own brand in 1999. Brambila makes a wide range of wines, but the Chardonnay remains closest to his heart. “For me, it’s all about making a wine that takes you back to a memory of each vintage.”

Judgement of Paris: What’s New?

Bottle Shock: The Musical. “You can get away with things in a song—the inner landscape of very passionate people—that you can’t do in a movie,” says James D. Sasser, co-creator of the new musical based on the 2008 film. A gala takes place at the Napa Opera House on June 18; the stage production by FOGG Theatre Company is slated to debut in October in San Francisco.

Judgment of Paris: The Film. “American Dream stories always resonate with people—if you work hard, you would succeed,” says Robert Mark Kamen, screenwriter for the upcoming movie Judgment of Paris, which chronicles the red-wine side of the 1976 tasting. The film is scheduled to begin production this summer. Kamen, who wrote The Karate Kid and the Taken trilogy, also owns Kamen Estate Wines in Sonoma.

Bride Valley Sparkling Wine. The former wine merchant who staged the Judgment of Paris tasting, British wine journalist and author Steven Spurrier has gone over to the bubbly side. He and his wife, Arabella, have launched Bride Valley, which produces  sparkling wines grown on the chalky slopes of Dorset. U.S. distribution coming soon.

Judgement of Paris: Fun Facts

Wine pouring at the Judgment of Paris
Photo by Bella Spurrier, Paris 1976

* The 1976 Time magazine article on the winning California wines said they were “rather expensive ($6 plus).”

* Although Chateau Montelena Winery is in the Napa Valley, most grapes for the winning Chardonnay came from neighboring Sonoma County (Russian River and Alexander valleys).

* At the Paris Tasting of the Chardonnays, two other California wineries beat out French competitors: the 1974 Chalone Vineyard finished third and the 1973 Spring Mountain Vineyard was fourth.

* The blend for the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon included—surprise—1% Pinot Noir.

* Want to own wine history? At the 2016 Auction Napa Valley (scheduled for June 2–5), a lot to be auctioned live includes one bottle of each of the winning 1976 Judgment of Paris wines.