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The Taste of Fear

Paris. 1976. These two words mean a lot to a certain class of wine lover. If they don't mean much to you then here's a quick synopsis. That place, that year, a reporter from time magazine attended a rather small blind tasting which pitted California wines (Chardonnays and Cabernets) against French Bordeaux and White Burgundy. The tasters were French wine experts, and after tasting they all felt certain of which wines were superior and that the ones they had selected were French. Well, they were wrong about the last part. A California Cabernet and Chardonnay ended up on top for the first time in history. Many people consider this to be the turning point for California wine's acceptance in the broader world, and the event that paved the way for the ascendancy of Napa to the status it carries today.

This Spring marks the 30th anniversary of that tasting, and they are holding it again. With the same wines. Except one country's winemakers want to change the rules. It ain't the Americans.

Can you smell the fear? I can. And so can Mark Fisher, in his post about it on Wine Sediments recently. Due to pressure from the Bordelaise -- the big Chateaux owners whose wines will be tasted against the Californian wines -- the event will no longer be a blind tasting. Instead every judge will know whether they are tasting a California wine or a French wine before they raise the glass to their lips. For some reason, the French are scared that the outcome will be the same as it was thirty years ago.

Now the tasting, which I was so excited about, and planning to try to attend before I heard this latest news, is now a farce. A poorly executed stunt. A sham.

Of course, one can make too big a deal of such things, and easily get wrapped up in the competition of the event, which is beside the point. In my mind, the point would be to honor the spirit of the original event and honestly discover how these famous wines have aged -- the outcome being much more instructive than it will be competitive.

It just seems silly to call it a recreation of the event and then go and change the rules, doesn't it? If the wine world were dominated by women, this sort of thing would never happen. Men's egos tend to get wrapped up in the silliest of things, wine not the least of them.

I tend to agree with Mark when he says the judges, all of them respectable wine journalists of the highest caliber, should refuse to participate unless the rules are changed back.

Read the full story.

Comments (14)

Michelle wrote:
05.03.06 at 8:25 AM

For the life of me, I can't recover the link, but the Wall Street Journal had an interesting front page article on this just yesterday. Apparently a bit of infighting on the California side isn't helping things much either. So much for "re-creation."

Doug wrote:
05.03.06 at 8:30 AM

Alder - how about recreating the tasting (at least the main flights) in San Francisco. Put out an all points for the wines, charge for attending at a nice restaurant - to breakeven. Pull together a worldwide judging panel. How fun!

Hector Hill wrote:
05.03.06 at 10:09 AM
Alder wrote:
05.03.06 at 10:22 AM

Hector, thanks for the article.

EVERYONE should go read it.

Good grief. What a debacle. If this doesn't prove that people get to wrapped up in themselves I don't know what does.

What could have been a perfectly celebratory event has now degraded into backstabbing, paranoia, spin-mongering, and finger pointing.

They ought to just cancel the whole thing.

Alder wrote:
05.03.06 at 10:35 AM


Judging by the WSJ article about this tasting, I think I'd have a hard time convincing people to give us the wines.

Michelle wrote:
05.03.06 at 10:45 AM

Hector - Thanks for finding that link. I searched all over for it and somehow missed it.
At this point I think, if it even comes to fruition, the "excitement" will be more around getting the tasting together than the tasting itself.

Bonnie wrote:
05.03.06 at 11:41 AM

Fantastic post - I can picture the French shaking in their boots. Too bad such a wonderful event is now a sham.

John wrote:
05.03.06 at 11:46 AM

It's... boring, no matter how you look at it. What happened 30 years ago was significant then but replicating it today amounts to dressing up in Civil War uniforms and role playing famous battles.

Want to capture the true gestalt of that moment? Say ok to the "need to know" Calif vs. french, and then slip in a falsely identified Chilean or South African or whatever ringer or two... now THAT would be interesting.

Natester wrote:
05.03.06 at 2:10 PM

I am adamant in my belief that these tasting are nothing more then gaming-like events, totally worth doing, but not representative of much. The variation in palate sensitivity and personal preference are far too great. Those French judges back in the day probably felt a sigh of relief at the easily accesible Aemrican wines. I know I've done blind tastings of both CA and Fr Cabs and the Frech generally fare poorly, especially to the less experienced. All that fruit.

wineglut wrote:
05.03.06 at 2:33 PM

The lie: The wines are too different to be compared, they argued. "When you listen to a Mozart symphony, you listen to all three movements -- you don't insert a Beethoven in the middle," Mr. (Paul)Pontallier (Ch. Margaux) explains.

The truth: The wines taste so much alike that our revered wine critics will be unable to separate the Bordeaux from the Napa Valley. If you want to compare and rate your preference of two composers like Mozart and Beethoven you listen to each, side by side, and state your preference. One would hope you could tell the difference.

Alder wrote:
05.03.06 at 6:39 PM

Zin Guy,

Actually I think your analogy would actually be dressing up in civil war uniforms, giving people the same firearms as in 1865 with live ammunition and seeing which side has more standing after a few battles.


Steve T wrote:
05.04.06 at 10:27 AM

A better analogy would be "Mozart versus Smith & Wesson: who makes the better handgun?"

Neither side has much to be proud of in this tussle. The French's obvious cowardice to me seems marginally less offensive than the Americans' jingoism and addiction to pseudo-science.

The Americans are almost certainly going to "win" the challenge, because they are better at making wines that are designed to win challenges. That's not the same thing as making "better" wines, whatever that actually means.

Whatever the result, it's pathetic that the challenge is going to be made to carry a lot more weight than it can bear, just as its 1976 counterpart did. The "results" of that challenge were a lot less conclusive than they are usually made out to be; and they still don't have very much to do with how "good" or "bad" any particular wines are.

It's never going to be just about the wines in the test. It's going to be "the USA kicked some serious ass at the big showdown again, so you should pour that Frenchie swill down the drain and shell out $50 for my wine here, even though it wasn't in it". I think the French have some justification in being afraid of that.

Mark Fisher wrote:
05.18.06 at 12:11 PM


I have written a piece this morning entitled "Judge invited to re-enact the 1976 Paris tasting speaks out for fairness" that may be of interest to you. It's based on an interview with the rather outspoken CEO of Paterno Wines and Terlato Wine Group, Anthony J. Terlato, and it's on Wine Sediments today at the following link: http://www.wellfed.net/winesediments/winesediments.php/2006/05/18/title_84

Thanks for considering, and cheers!

Alder wrote:
05.18.06 at 12:13 PM

Thanks Mark. I hope more people go Terlato's way.

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