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05.02.2006

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.

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