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07.02.2006

Fallout From The Second Paris Tasting

May marked the 30th anniversary of the famous 1976 Paris Tasting in which French wine experts selected California wines over their French counterparts in a blind tasting. Those of you who follow wine news know, of course, that in the rematch of the original red wines that was staged to commemorate the anniversary, California wines won again, and decisively.

So I've been wondering, what the impact will be. Of course it's too soon to know if it will really have any impact on the wine world from a market perspective, but I've been watching to see what effect it has had from a psychological and journalistic perspective.

I don't know that I have any conclusions to share, but I can tell you what I've seen.

In the weeks leading up to the tasting, Michael Steinberger weighed in on what he thought the whole thing meant. And of course there was already the book.

If you didn't manage to catch the immediate reporting of the second tasting's results here's some coverage from The Independent (London); Decanter Magazine; The San Francisco Chronicle; MSNBC; and The Napa Valley Register. Each provides an interesting "local" take on the immediate news.

Much ado was made (some before, most after the tasting) of the fact that the Rothschilds chose not to participate in the the tasting, and yanked their offer to host it at their estate when organizers refused their request that the tasting be done non-blind.

Then more interesting things started happening.

People started considering what this really meant, and analyzing the results.

Some people, including to a certain extend, the host Steven Spurrier, started twisting the results and even claiming that France actually won.

Eric Asimov got Paris Judgment fatigue and started complaining that the thing shouldn't have really happened in the first place.

Then people started saying even more interesting things.

Allegations surfaced that the first tasting, as well as this one were "faked" or "setup" as a publicity stunt. As usually happens when things get to this point, many people joined in agreement and countered in outrage.

Specifically, Marvin Shanken said "I thought it was a stunt the first time in 1976....Back then, I didn't pay much attention, as I knew the parties involved and thought they had an agenda. Why did they do it in the first place? What did they have to gain then? It was clear to me that they wanted to attract attention for themselves and the wines involved were their puppets. If the French wines had won, big deal, who would care? But if the California wines won, then maybe the event would attract attention. What a surprise, the California wines won! To the California wineries involved, they could not lose and they didn't. To the French wine producers, they could not win (and they didn't)."

There was no resolution on the matter of whether, in fact, the results were fake.

But there was resolution in congress. Specifically, the legislators of America took time out of their busy schedules filled with lobbyist luncheons and pork-barrel-bill-stuffing to give a little "NYAH NYAH" to the French, having not had an opportunity to do so since they renamed the frites in the Capitol Hill cafeteria "Freedom Fries" a few years ago.

And like all things scandalous, triumphant, and petty, it was announced that Hollywood is going to make a movie out of it, starring Jude Law and Hugh Grant. Who else?

All's well that ends in a multimillion dollar star vehicle about wine, I suppose. What do you think the real ending is?

Comments (9)

07.02.06 at 12:59 PM

It seems to me you really KNOW a story is meaningless when they decide to make a movie out of it (starring Hugh Grant!). I thought wine was for drinking with your friends, a convivial activity also involving food and sometimes the marking of occasions. Boy was I confused.

Geoff Smith wrote:
07.03.06 at 10:18 AM

Speaking of "freedom fries," I think this might be the time to pause and meditate on this singular gastronomic creation.

Now that trans-fats (trans fatty acids) have been finally recognized as being unhealthy, perhaps we could change the recipe and fry the potatoes in Iraqi crude oil. This would certainly instill the proper "gout de liberte" (while perhaps darkening the potatoes a bit much).

The matching wine, you ask? A well-aged Riesling, preferably from between the 1933-1945 vintages, which by now should display the proper "gout de petrole."

Eric Lecours wrote:
07.03.06 at 10:57 AM

Is there any concrete evidence that the results should be suspected, or is it just innuendo? When considering from where the insinuation that striving for publicity is grounds for suspecting ulterior motives comes, well?

Yes, for the red wines California did come out on top in 1976; the four French wines, however, placed 2, 3, 4 and 6. If Stag's Leap were not entered into the competition, it would have been a French blow-out.

Thirty years later the California wines, on the other hand, took the top three spots, even when scored by the likes of Jancis Robinson and Michael Broadbent, hardly Freedom Fries proponents. That in some ways is more impressive than the original result. Unfortunately, California wines of that quality and style seems to be an extinct species. Ironic, really. Or maybe not, when considering that the forces that lead to their extinction and who leveled the recent innuendo are one and the same.

Erwin Dink wrote:
07.03.06 at 1:23 PM

It seems to me that this is a natural result of the existence of ratings as the preferred means of evaluating wine. Ratings and competitions create and support the false notion that wine quality can be measured objectively which is an absurd notion if you think about it. Wine is first and foremost a food so certainly it has to be judged fit for consumption but after that it's ridiculous to think that any wine can be proven to be better than any other. I don't remember which character said it but I'm pretty sure it was in Through the Looking Glass... "There's no accounting for taste!"

Alder wrote:
07.05.06 at 11:00 AM

As far as I know, there is no real evidence that the results should be suspect.

Alder

Alder wrote:
07.05.06 at 11:08 AM

Erwin,

I agree that the reliance and focus on ratings contributes to controversy, simplification, and limited value that such competitions can hold for consumers.

However, I do think that your statement "it's ridiculous to think that any wine can be proven to be better than any other" is incorrect.

While the evaluation of wine, like art, is a subjective act, it is not without historic precedence or standards. Just as we can assuredly say that Picasso and Van Gogh were two of the greatest artists in history, and that their paintings are "better" than, say, a first year art student's, so too we can evaluate some wines as better than others based on reasonable, shared criteria that have been established by people who do nothing but study wine all day.

That's different than saying there are "objective" criteria, as I believe the criteria themselves are still somewhat subjective, but it's VERY different than taking what amounts to a relativist stance on wine evaluation which says, as long as a wine is not "unfit for consumption" there is no way to prove one better than the other.

Erwin Dink wrote:
07.05.06 at 5:11 PM

As soon as I posted that about no wine being "better" than another I felt a little uncomfortable with it but wasn't sure how to modify it. I appreciate your post because it more articulately expresses the difference betwen subjective assessments and established (shared) criteria.

The most important point to me about evaluating a wine is simply the preferences of the taster. To give just one example, there is a somewhat common understanding that chocolate and dessert wines or port go well together but I really like the contrasting feelings my tongue experiences when I eat some chocolate with a more typically food freindly and acidic wine. To me, that's a good match, even though a consensus opinion might disagree. I also like a little funk in some wines. The fact that that same funk might be seen by others as a flaw doesn't take away from my enjoyment.

Tyler T wrote:
07.06.06 at 11:15 AM

I blogged recently about a webpage I stumbled upon written by Dennis Lindley (who Wikipedia calls a "noted British Statistician"). He analyzed the original tasting and showed
1) That the French really cleaned up
2) some wines were clearly better (preferred) than others
3) Judging wines, even for experts, is imperfect and difficult (perhaps supporting Alder's statement that "the criteria themselves are still somewhat subjective, but it's VERY different than taking what amounts to a relativist stance on wine evaluation which says, as long as a wine is not "unfit for consumption" there is no way to prove one better than the other."

The article is a little technical, but very interesting

James wrote:
08.29.06 at 6:19 AM

I have written about the Paris tasting several times on my own blog, in particular here:

http://cricketandcivilisation.blogspot.com/2006/08/judgment-of-paris-1976-wine-tasting.html

Ever since the day of the event itself, there have been those trying to argue either that it was a fake, or that in reality the French won or should have won. For example, it has been said:

(i) the French wines would not have reached maturity. Perhaps not, but neither would the Californians, and subsequent tastings, including 1986 and 2006, have resulted in more emphatic wins for the Californians, suggesting that in fact they aged better.

(ii) there were more Californian wines present, increasing their chances of winning. Indeed, but no-one before the event would have thought that that would affect the result. And it also reflects the fact that Spurrier was just trying to show off some Californian wines, not organise a grand competition.

In fact Spurrier didn't sell the Californian wines at his shop at the time, and he would have realised that the event would be very bad for business if the Californians won.

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