The Judgement of Paris...and Wine

If you Google “The Judgment of Paris,” the most important and by far the most elaborate entry refers to an event recorded in Greek Mythology.  Then if you Google “The Judgment of Paris and wine,” there is a whole different story in which Steven Spurrier is the main protagonist and the subject of this blog.


In Greek Mythology, Zeus was asked to make a decision about who was the fairest of the three Greek Goddesses of Olympus: Aphrodite, Hera or Athena the winner would receive a golden apple addressed “to the fairest one.” Zeus did not want to offend any of the goddesses, so he appointed a mortal Trojan, Paris, to make the judgment. Each of the goddesses tried different forms of bribery on Paris. Aphrodite who was the goddess of sexuality offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world who happened to be Helen of Sparta. Aphrodite got the apple and Paris got Helen who then became Helen of Troy. The Greeks were incensed by this move that went on to cause the Trojan War and the eventual destruction of Troy.

One of Stephen Spurrier’s earliest and best-known accomplishments in the wine world was when he challenged the French to a blind tasting of the best of French wines against the best of the then-emerging California wines.  At the time Steven Spurrier had established a wine shop called ”Caves de la Madeleine” 25, rue Royale (Cité Berryer) 75008 Paris, slap bang in the center of Paris, close to both the American and British embassies.

Naturally, the well-off attachés and members of the English-speaking embassies flocked to buy their wines at Caves De La Madeleine where the bilingual Steven willingly obliged. Not only that, but he presciently stocked a selection of non-French wines including wines from California.  The buying of wines from California took Spurrier to different regions that included Napa and Santa Rosa where he became increasingly enamored by the quality of the wines from California.

He found as business continued to grow more and more of his time was spent explaining the nuances of French wine to the ex-pats who were all too willing to learn. After several years in business, the shop next door became vacant and he was able to use it to establish an Ecole du Vin (Wine School) in the rue Royale.

The year was 1976 and the American ex-pats wanted to do something to celebrate the Bicentennial embracing independence of America, not only from the French but also from the Bloody British. Ever the man to create publicity, Spurrier, with the help of friends and an American journalist for The Baltimore Sun devised the challenge by inviting the best of the French wine critics in Paris at the time to taste blind a selection of the best Grand Cru Bordeaux red wines and the best of the Grand Cru Burgundy white wines against a selection of California wines.  The challenge for the French at the time caused little in the way of interest; to the French, it was a foregone conclusion, almost laughable. “California against hundreds of years of French wine expertise, Mon Dieu!”

Figaro and Le Monde were not interested, and after frantic efforts to get at least some coverage, Spurrier contacted the American correspondent for Time Magazine, a man called George Taber who agreed to cover the story and who later went on to write a whole book on the subject.

The result was a stunning blow to the French. California’s Stag’s Leap Cellars came first in the reds and California’s Chateau Montelena came first in the whites. The pride of the French was punctured and Spurrier was banned from tasting wines in the French circuits for one year.

Needless to say, the results have been challenged in many circles, the most telling of which was on the 30th Anniversary a re-tasting organized by Steven Spurrier. As The Times reported, "Despite the French tasters, many of whom had taken part in the original tasting, 'expecting the downfall' of the American vineyards, they had to admit that the harmony of the Californian cabernets had beaten them again. Judges on both continents gave top honors to a 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet. Four Californian reds occupied the next placings before the highest-ranked Bordeaux, a 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild, came in at sixth!

A note of caution, however, there have been many challenges from a statistical point of view on the validity and Spurrier himself acknowledged in Decanter in 1996  "adding the judges' marks and dividing this by nine (which I was told later was statistically meaningless)."

It was George Taber of Time magazine who coined the term “The Judgment of Paris,” deliberately equating the significance of the event and the consequent catastrophic effects to the Greeks as it did to the French. Everyone likes to see heroes in the humdrum of daily life and in the context of the Judgment of Paris to the British and Americans alike, Steven Spurrier was a hero.

NewsAndrew Hodson