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Judgment of Paris: California Vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wineby George M. Taber and Robert G. Mondavi
Was there ever a better job? In the mid-1970s, I was a correspondent for Time magazine in Paris. It was a small office, so I got to write stories on subjects as varied as French politics and haute couture. When a big story broke in one of the countries under the Paris bureau, I jetted off to Madrid to cover the assassination of a Spanish prime minister, to Lisbon to report on a revolution taking place, or to Amsterdam to check into a bribery scandal involving the Dutch queen's husband.
On May 24, 1976, I happened to be in Paris. The previous week I had suggested to editors in New York a story on a wine tasting that was doing the unthinkable: comparing some of the greatest names in French wines with new and little-known California wines. It seemed like a nonevent — clearly France would win — but as a native Californian, I had developed an interest in wine and had tried to learn something about European wines while studying or working in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and, of course, France.
Each week Time correspondents around the world suggest hundreds of stories. Only a few of the proposals are scheduled and even fewer ever make it to press. It's a fierce survival-of-the-fittest process, but the result is a lively, compelling publication. Although my story was scheduled, I knew that the odds of it getting into the magazine were long. If, as expected, the French wines won, there would be no story. But you never know, and a wine tasting — where maybe I'd get a chance to try a few of the wines myself — seemed, at the very least, like a perfectly wonderful way to spend an otherwise slow afternoon.
The event was taking place at the InterContinental Hotel, not far from the Time office just off the Champs-Élysées. In winter I might have taken the Métro there, but it was a beautiful spring day, so instead I walked through the immaculate gardens lining the grand boulevard toward the Place de la Concorde. I considered this the most beautiful part of the world's most beautiful city. There were monumental buildings, elegant people, and an exciting hustle and bustle. This was the epicenter of the city Gershwin put to music in An American in Paris. I strolled past the American embassy and the Egyptian obelisk nicknamed Cleopatra's Needle in the Place de La Concorde to the Rue de Rivoli, and then under its arcades lined with fashionable shops displaying their wares. The InterContinental, located on the Rue de Castiglione and bordered by the Rue de Rivoli and the majestic Place Vendôme, was one of the most fashionable hotels in Paris. It reeked of class and luxury.
A hotel doorman directed me to the small, elegant room off the hotel's patio bar where the tasting was to take place. As I entered, waiters in tuxedos were busily setting up the event, laying out tablecloths and distributing glasses. I knew the organizers of the tasting, Englishman Steven Spurrier, who owned a nearby wine shop called the Caves de la Madeleine, and his sidekick Patricia Gallagher, an American. I had taken an introductory wine course taught by Gallagher at the Académie du Vin, a wine school associated with the shop. Her personal plea was one of the reasons I had agreed to cover the tasting, which was designed to garner some publicity for the shop and school, but they were having a hard time getting any publications to take it seriously. In fact, I was the only journalist who showed up. After saying hello to Gallagher, I started taking notes in the brown plastic-covered book that I always carried with me.
Soon the nine judges began arriving. I knew none of them personally, but they had impeccable credentials and were among the leading wine experts in France. With the quiet formalism of the French establishment, the judges greeted each other with a handshake and then took their places along the long bank of tables. As this was going to be a blind tasting, meaning the labels of the wines would not be shown, the judges would not know which wines they were tasting. They knew only that the wines were from France and California, and that the red wines were Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignons and the whites were Burgundy-style Chardonnays. Shortly after 3:00 PM, a waiter began walking up and down a row of tables pouring wine from unmarked bottles. The judges had nothing in front of them except a scorecard, two glasses, and a petit pain, a small hard roll for nibbling on to clean the palate between wines. As is common in a wine tasting, the judges started with the white wines.
It was a very informal event, so I was free to roam around the room as the judges tasted the wines. They were a little chattier than is normal at a tasting, where the experts usually quietly concentrate on the work at hand.
About halfway through the white wine part of the competition, I began to notice something quite shocking. I had a list of the wines and realized that the judges were getting confused! They were identifying a French wine as a California one and vice versa. Judges at one end of the tables were insisting that a particular wine was French, while those at the other were saying it was from California.
Raymond Oliver, the owner and chef of the Grand Véfour restaurant in Paris, one of the temples of French haute cuisine, swirled a white wine in his glass, held it up to the light to examine the pale straw color, smelled it, and then tasted it. After a pause he said, "Ah, back to France!" I checked my list of wines twice to be sure, but Oliver had in fact just tasted a 1972 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay from California's Napa Valley! Soon after, Claude Dubois-Millot of GaultMillau, a publisher of French food and wine books and magazines, tasted another white wine and said with great confidence, "That is definitely California. It has no nose." But the wine was really a 1973 Bâtard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, one of Burgundy's finest products.
Spurrier's Paris tasting might just be an interesting story after all.
Text copyright © 2005 by George M. Taber
Chapter One: The Little Wine Shop in Cité Berryer
If we sip the wine, we find dreams
On an autumn day in 1970, two Englishmen were walking around Paris's posh Right Bank near the Rue Royale. Although its glory was in the nineteenth century, luxury still reigns there as an art form in this section made up of the city's First and Eighth arrondissements. The area combines New York City's Park Avenue with Beverly Hills's Rodeo Drive. Within a few blocks are found such restaurants as Maxim's, shops like Hermès and Cartier, and the Ritz, the quintessential ritzy hotel. The Right Bank is a wonderful area for strolling, especially in the fall after most of the tourists have left and the city's pace slows a little. The summer heat is gone, and the chestnut leaves begin to fall.
The two men wandered into Cité Berryer, a street easy to miss because it was only a block long, going from the Rue Royale to the Boissy d'Anglas. Cité Berryer was a slightly seedy shopping arcade that seemed out of place amid all the luxury around it. Built in the nineteenth century, it was named after a then leading, but now long forgotten, politician. Twice a week an open-air, fresh vegetable and fruit market took place there, and fashionable and unfashionable women alike lined up to buy produce for their families. A small wine shop was located next to a locksmith.
As the two men passed the Caves de la Madeleine, a wine shop named after the famous church located two blocks away, one man turned to the other and said, "That is exactly the kind of shop I would like to buy."
Steven Spurrier was a well-to-do son of English landed gentry, who at the age of twenty-nine was still trying to figure out what he was going to do when he grew up. After spending several months living in Provence in southern France, Spurrier had recently moved to Paris, where he and his wife, Bella, resided on a 130-foot barge moored on the River Seine at the Place de la Concorde.
If there was a centerpiece to Spurrier's wandering life, it was wine. In his youth, when other boys were outside playing soccer, he could be found rearranging bottles in the wine cellar at Holbrook Hall, his family's estate in Derbyshire in north-central England. Spurrier worked for a short time for two leading shops in the London wine trade. One of them sent him — at his own expense — on a seven-month study tour of wine through France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal.
As Spurrier and his friend, a British lawyer living in Paris, entered the store, the owner, Madame Fougères, asked if she could help them.
"My friend here would like to buy your shop," said the lawyer with British directness.
The idea was not so crazy. The wine shop had actually been quietly for sale for two years, after the owner's husband had committed suicide. His widow had lost interest in running the business, which involved lots of heavy work lifting cases and pushing around barrels of wine. After a few minutes of conversation, the two Englishmen left.
A few days later, Spurrier returned alone to talk to Madame Fougères about buying the shop. She explained that she had a strong emotional tie to the store because it had been her husband's pride — in fact, his whole life. She was not certain if she would sell it, especially to an Englishman who didn't speak much French, despite his proclaimed interest in her country's most prestigious product. Madame Fougères told Spurrier she doubted he could "carry the torch" for her dead husband. Spurrier then made a proposal. To show he was serious, he would work for her in the store for six months at no pay, doing whatever she asked. It was a deal she could hardly refuse.
So even though he had $250,000 in inheritance money in the bank, Spurrier went to work rolling wine barrels around the store's cellar and delivering cases of wine up six flights in the service stairway of Parisian apartments because delivery people were not supposed to use the elevator. Sometimes a grateful housekeeper gave him a fifty-centimes (ten-cent) tip.
Spurrier learned the Paris wine business from the inside at the same time he was improving his French. When the six months were over, he bought the wine shop for 300,000 francs ($50,000), and on April 1, 1971, moved behind the cash register to be the new owner. Madame Fougères had been very formal up to that point, never even telling him her first name. But after he bought the business, she asked him to call her by her nickname, Timoune.
The Caves de la Madeleine was a typical French wine shop. Its core business was inexpensive vin ordinaire, the wine an average French family drinks with lunch and dinner. Madame Fougères bottled it out of tanks, selling four simple wines by the liter: a red with 11 percent alcohol, a 12 percent red, a white, and a rosé. The day he took over, Spurrier stopped the bottling of vin ordinaire, though it took him a year to sell it all off. Madame Fougères's wholesaler told Spurrier he was crazy and would soon go bankrupt.
The vin ordinaire crowd, however, was not what Spurrier was going after. He wanted the upper part of the market and was soon visiting vineyards all over France to buy quality wines directly from winemakers. He thought his biggest potential market was the Britons and Americans working in Paris, especially in the neighborhood around his shop. The British and U.S. embassies were only a few blocks away, and in the nearby Place Vendôme and Place de la Concorde, IBM and American law firms had offices. As the only wine-store owner in Paris who was a native English speaker, Spurrier wanted to be the wine merchant to that large and generally affluent Anglo-American community. The way to reach them, Spurrier concluded, was through the International Herald Tribune, the daily newspaper of Americans in Paris, which provided a diet of New York Times and Washington Post stories plus a few local articles. Spurrier began running ads in the paper's classified section for the Caves de la Madeleine's promotional events.
Given his upper-class background, Spurrier moved easily in Parisian business and social circles. He cut a dashing figure, wearing three-piece suits and with a glass of wine never far away. His hair was stylishly long, cut in an early Beatles style, and he sported a free-flowing mustache. His slight British upper-class stammer and terribly British style charmed journalists, especially women. In a profile published in the Herald Tribune, reporter Susan Heller Anderson gushingly wrote: "A peach-colored Englishman elegant in teal blue pinstriped suit with waistcoat and creamy linen shirt, he describes in Etonian accents how most Provençal rosßs are absolutely filthy."
Jon Winroth was the Herald Tribune's wine writer, and soon after taking over ownership of the wine shop Spurrier set out to meet him. Winroth had grown up in Chicago, where his father was a professor of archaeology. In a rarity of the 1940s and 1950s, Winroth's family served wine regularly with meals. He had come to Paris in 1956 on a Fulbright scholarship to study history, but wine was soon his major interest. He landed a job with the Herald Tribune, writing stories on topics like the year's harvest or some interesting French winery.
Spurrier sent Winroth samples of special wines he was carrying, always enclosing an invitation to stop by the store or give him a call. For months Spurrier heard nothing in reply, so one day he walked the short distance to the Herald Tribune offices on the Rue de Berri. When he arrived, Spurrier got into one of those tiny Paris elevators that can hold two people as long as neither person breathes. Ever so slowly it rose to the third floor. Just as Spurrier was leaving the elevator, a thin young man, also with a mustache, was getting in.
"Can you tell me where Jon Winroth works?" Spurrier asked.
"I'm Jon Winroth," the man replied.
"I'm Steven Spurrier. I own the Caves de la Madeleine wine shop."
"So you're the guy who's been bombarding me with all those samples! I'm heading out to have a glass of wine. Why don't you come along, and we can talk?"
The two men hit it off immediately, talking for more than four hours over several glasses of wine at a table in the back of a nearby cafß. Spurrier told Winroth about the plans for his business. Sales were good; he was becoming better known and progressing toward his goal of becoming the wine merchant for Anglo-Americans in Paris.
Spurrier also told him about how a small but regular group of Americans came by the shop late in the afternoon after work to talk about wine. He often opened a bottle of wine and gave them some basic tips while they sipped. He'd charge them by the glass, and they seemed delighted to learn a little more about the subject in an atmosphere where they could speak English and wouldn't be laughed at because they couldn't name all of Bordeaux's famous Grands Crus. Winroth told Spurrier that he gave similar wine-tasting seminars in the back rooms of Parisian cafés to American college students on their junior year abroad. The two men mused about some day starting a wine school that would serve both their audiences.
While cultivating the Anglo-American press and companies, Spurrier did not ignore the French wine establishment. In fact, he courted it with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. With the self-confidence and impetuousness of youth, Spurrier began strong-arming his way into French wine events.
He absolutely wanted to know Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who were the hot new experts on food, wine, and travel. In 1965, they began publishing Le Nouveau Guide, a restaurant guide with a fresh and breezy style that quickly made it an alternative to the better-known — but hidebound — Michelin guide. The two later started a monthly magazine on both wines and restaurants that was very influential in setting French tastes. When Spurrier heard that the magazine was staging a tasting of Provençal wines at the swank George V Hotel, just off the Champs-Élysées, he showed up uninvited with several bottles of wine that he sold in his shop. At the door he said in his by now very good French, "I'm Steven Spurrier, and I own the Caves de la Madeleine wine shop. I'd like to enter these wines." The nonplussed doorman let him in, and somehow Spurrier was quickly invited to be a member of the tasting panel. The French were surprised by his knowledge of wine, and he was soon in tight with the Gault-Millau crowd, which, like him, was young and irreverent.
Spurrier also worked his way into the Foire de Paris and the Foire de Mâcon, two big agricultural shows that awarded wine prizes, and before long he was judging wine competitions all over the country.
When he heard that the prestigious wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France was giving a test for sommeliers, the wine stewards who work in only the best restaurants, Spurrier showed up uninvited to take the test. Officials told him the examination was for sommeliers only and not for wine merchants, but Spurrier said he still wanted to take it. Reluctantly Odette Kahn, the magazine's tall and striking-looking editor, allowed him to participate. Spurrier was the only person that day to score a perfect 100 percent on the written part. When Kahn invited him to stay for the wine-tasting section of the examination, Spurrier declined, saying he just wanted to see what the test was like. Intrigued by the young Brit, Kahn quickly took an interest in his wine enterprises.
Eighteen months after Spurrier bought the Caves de la Madeleine, the locksmith located next door went bankrupt. Spurrier bought the shop at auction, and then suggested to Winroth that they collaborate and start a wine school for Spurrier's inquisitive American businesspeople and Winroth's junior-year-abroad students. They called their school the Académie du Vin. Despite the name, instruction would be only in English.
It took about six months to turn the downstairs area of the locksmith shop, where there had been a forge, into the Académie's classroom. The ceiling was stripped to expose massive eighteenth-century oak beams. Spurrier hung maps of wine-growing regions on the brick walls and filled a bookcase with tomes on wine in both French and English. In a stroke of luck that seemed to follow all his wine ventures during the 1970s, Spurrier heard that a horseshoe-shaped mahogany bar from the Napoléon III period was for sale at a café near the famous Les Halles food market. It cost only five hundred francs (a hundred dollars), but he had to haul it away that very afternoon.
Spurrier and Winroth had to call friends around Paris to get enough students for the first class, which they taught together, just before France's traditional August vacation break in 1972. The class went well, but it convinced Spurrier that he would need help running the wine school. Serendipitously, a young American woman who loved Paris and was trying to find a way to stay happened to call him asking for a job. Patricia Gallagher had met Spurrier while interviewing him for a freelance article she had written for Delaware's Wilmington Morning News. But freelancing for her home state's main newspaper and doing pick-up work at the Herald Tribune were not going to pay her bills, so she needed a job. Gallagher went to work at the Académie du Vin almost immediately.
Although she knew little about wine when she joined Spurrier, Gallagher proved a quick study and was soon giving courses and managing the school. While Spurrier was casual and confident as a teacher, she was more serious. I can still recall her, in the course I took, carefully leading her students through an understanding of tannins, a substance found mainly in red wines. She talked about the furry sensation tannins cause in your mouth and how the students should be feeling them, until everyone in the class told her they got it.
The Acadßmie du Vin was a big hit immediately. Early students told their friends about it, and word spread quickly through the Anglo-American community of this place where people could learn about French wines in English. The press also picked up on the unusual story of a young Englishman running a wine school in Paris. First the Herald Tribune and British papers ran the story; French papers soon followed.
The initial six-session course was a general introduction to the wine regions of France and cost five hundred francs. After an overview class, the following five weekly meetings concentrated on a single region, going from the Loire Valley in week two to Champagne in week six. After the school's early success, more specialized courses were offered on specific regions and various vintages. Most of the two-hour sessions were in the early evening so people could take them after work on their way home. Soon more and more students were sitting around the horseshoe bar listening to Spurrier or Gallagher talk about wine. The names of the wines under discussion were written on a blackboard behind the bar, and a platter of cheese, cold cuts, and country bread stood at the ready to accompany the wine. Conversation always became livelier as the classes and the wines progressed.
Before long even the French were calling and asking to take courses. Hard as it was to believe, the Académie du Vin was the only place in Paris that gave formal programs, in either French or English, in wine appreciation. By then Spurrier was no longer surprised at how little the average French person knew about wine, and he hired a native speaker to teach at the school. Later, the Académie also gave the official program for French sommeliers.
The Caves de la Madeleine had been a success, but the Académie du Vin put Spurrier into a new orbit. By the mid-1970s, his early Beatles look was replaced by a more conservative Savile Row style. After his mustache came off in 1975, Spurrier looked like the young banker his father had wanted him to be. His father, who had always been dismissive of a wine career, learned how successful his son had become while checking in a rental car at the airport in Bordeaux one day. The young woman at the Hertz counter asked the father, "You aren't the celebrated wine merchant, by any chance?" He proudly explained that was his son.
In the Paris of the mid-1970s, Spurrier and Gallagher were excited and exciting. They obviously loved France and all things French, especially wine, which helped them move easily in French society. They became such an item around town that people wondered if they were a couple. They were not. Spurrier's wife, Bella, was busy raising their two small boys in the family's apartment at the Place de la Bastille, where they moved after they left their barge on the Seine. Meanwhile Gallagher was developing a relationship with a Frenchman she later married.
Spurrier and Gallagher traveled endlessly to the wine regions of France from Champagne to Bordeaux, talking to vintners and learning more about French wines. The more they learned, the more the French liked them. Soon they were also offering trips to wine regions, and their English-speaking customers piled into buses on Saturday mornings and traveled to Burgundy or Alsace.
Money was the least of worries in those effervescent days around the little wine shop. If Spurrier found something interesting and perhaps amusing, he just did it. He was not even taking a salary from his company, still living on his inheritance. What really mattered was having fun, and he and Gallagher were doing things that the staid French wine establishment had never done — and probably would never even have thought of doing.
In May 1972, Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit to Paris as part of warming diplomatic relations between the two countries that led to Britain's entry into the European Common Market the following year. One of the events during her stay was a dinner the queen hosted at the British embassy for French president Georges Pompidou. Shortly before her visit, Spurrier received a phone call from Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, a dedicated Francophile who had planted 4.5 acres of Seyve-Villard and Chardonnay vines in Hambledon, a town near Portsmouth in southern England. He suggested serving his dry white wine at the dinner for Pompidou. Wouldn't it be greatly amusing to serve an English wine to the president of France? Spurrier also thought it a great idea and ordered five cases of Sir Guy's wine. Dinner planners at the embassy put it on the menu.
Two days before the event, however, Spurrier got a call from customs agents at Orly Airport outside Paris. An official said the Hambledon wine had arrived, but there was a problem. With time short before the dinner, Spurrier raced to Orly to see the customs agent, who told him that unfortunately the wine could not be imported into France.
"But why not?" asked Spurrier. "It has arrived, and here are the papers."
"Because English wine does not exist," the customs agent replied. "Here is my list of goods that can be exported from England to France. There is no wine. There is no such thing as English wine, so I cannot clear it through customs. I cannot clear what doesn't exist." Spurrier was trapped in the maddening French logic that has driven the English crazy for a thousand years. Frustrated and seeing no way around this standoff with the stubborn civil servant, Spurrier reluctantly returned to Paris.
But the next day he called the customs officer for a second try. "Do me a favor," Spurrier said. "It's only sixty bottles. Let's just pretend that it's French wine. I'll pay you whatever I have to."
"I'm sorry, monsieur," said the official. "I cannot do that. We will have to send the cases back to England."
"No, don't do that! I'm coming back to Orly."
"It's no use, monsieur. There's nothing I can do."
When Spurrier returned to the airport and walked into the custom agent's office, he saw the five cases of wine on the floor next to the man's desk. "But the wine is there! You see it!" Spurrier said with growing exasperation.
"Of course, monsieur. It is physically there, but the wine does not exist because it is not on the list of exported English products."
Spurrier lost his temper and like a schoolmaster addressing a particularly dull student asked, "Does your job exist? Do you like your job?"
"Of course, monsieur."
"Well, in about two hours your job will no longer exist because this wine is supposed to be served tonight to President Pompidou and the Queen of England. If the wine is not there, you will be held responsible."
With amazing speed, the customs officer put the proper stamps on the official papers, and the wine was cleared through customs. Spurrier was soon on his way back to Paris with the nonexistent wine. That night the Queen served it to her French guests, who doubtlessly opined, "How curious! An English wine!"
About four times a year, Spurrier and Gallagher staged a special promotional event to raise the public profile of both the wine shop and the school. In the spring of 1975, Spurrier invited the vintners of Bordeaux's elite First Growth red wines — Haut-Brion, Lafite, Latour, Margaux, and Mouton — to a comparative tasting of the 1970 vintage in Paris. All but Haut-Brion came. No one in France had ever staged such a face-off of the great wines, and the event attracted attention and numerous press stories.
Spurrier and Gallagher began thinking about holding an event around California wines because they were hearing from a wide range of people about the exciting new things being done in northern California. At a Paris dinner party in 1973 or 1974, Alex Bespaloff, an American wine writer, first tried to convince Spurrier that some California wines were actually pretty good. Bespaloff took umbrage when Spurrier said he thought California wines were "rather cooked," meaning they were high in alcohol and had a burnt taste. California winemakers visiting Paris soon began stopping at the Caves de la Madeleine and dropping off bottles of their wares. Spurrier found some of them interesting. Robert Finigan, the publisher of the influential wine newsletter Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wines, and Frank Prial, the wine reporter for the New York Times, were frequent visitors to Cité Berryer when they came to Paris and became evangelists for the new California wine pioneers. They explained to Spurrier and Gallagher that the Americans held France up as their model of excellence and were trying to emulate the very best Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. Finigan and Prial said the California wines were surprisingly good — not up to French standards, but nonetheless interesting.
Gallagher heard similar enthusiasm for California wines from her husband-to-be, Gérard Gastaud, an electronics engineer who worked for the French telephone company and had recently spent a year in Las Vegas, where his company was installing a telephone system. During that time he made a foray to the Napa Valley and reported back that some California wines were pleasantly surprising. On his return to Paris in December 1974, Gastaud brought Gallagher a goodie bag of California viticulture: a bottle of unfiltered Robert Mondavi wine; a technical book on winemaking by Professor Maynard Amerine of the University of California, Davis; and a guide to the new wineries titled The Treasury of American Wines by Nathan Chroman.
Glenda Cudaback, a friend of Gallagher's who worked at the Herald Tribune, was also telling her about California wine. Cudaback and her husband were both from the city of Napa, where his father had a landscaping business that did work for new wineries being built in the valley.
The new smaller wineries, everyone explained, were producing far better California wine than could be bought in Paris. At the time, the only California wine easily available in Paris was Paul Masson, which was sold in screw-top bottles at fancy gourmet shops like Fauchon that carried products for expatriate Americans.
One day in early 1975, Gallagher told Spurrier that Americans were planning all sorts of special events the next year around the bicentennial of American independence and suggested that they put together something on California wines as part of that year-long celebration. Gallagher traced her family roots back to 1630 in Massachusetts and had a great interest in colonial America. The French, she noted, had played a major role in American independence thanks to Lafayette and all that. Why not have a tasting of California wines in Paris? As his earlier publicity events had demonstrated, Spurrier liked to be what the French called an agent provocateur. Above all, Spurrier thought it would be good fun, and in those days around the Caves de la Madeleine and the Académie du Vin, fun was all that really mattered.
Text copyright © 2005 by George M. Taber
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