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The Rise Of American Wine
AFTER TRYING TO PRODUCE DRINKABLE WINE for three hundred years, we finally got the hang of it—so effectively that in the last quarter-century our results have raised the quality of winemaking all over the world
December 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 8
As with most discoveries, the story be- gins with a crucial moment of realization, an eye-opening instant filled with the awareness of new possibility. In this case the moment came twenty years ago, in Paris, where a young Englishman named Stephen Spurrier ran a wine school called L’Arcadé mie du Vin. In May of 1976 Spurrier invited some of the most respected French wine experts of the day to a formal tasting of prestigious classified-growth Bordeaux and grand cru white Burgundy. Spurrier included a number of California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays in the tasting—in part because of his admiration for these then-obscure wines and in part because of his characteristically British desire to deflate Gallic pretension. This was not the first head-to-head comparison of French and American wines, but it was the first competitive tasting to be held in France with French professionals serving as judges. And it was blind, meaning that the judges had to evaluate and rank the wines without knowing which were which. To everyone’s surprise, including Spurrier’s, the winning wines turned out to be American—the red a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet and the white a Château Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, both from the Napa Valley. (In second place came two very famous French wines, Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 and Domaine Roulot 1973 Meursault-Charmes.) The press, which Spurrier had been sure to invite to the tasting, jumped on the story. In France the reaction reflected anger and disbelief, but in America it was pure glee. Writing in The New York Times , Frank Priai noted that Europeans frequently had denigrated American wines by denigrating American tastes. “What,” he asked rhetorically, “can they say now?” Time magazine put the case more succinctly: “Last week in Paris the unthinkable happened—California defeated all Gaul.”
Of course nothing of the sort had really happened. One event cannot by itself determine supremacy in a field as subjective and changeable as that of wine. Spurrier himself insisted that the Paris tasting should be thought of less as a competition than as a vehicle for discovery—”an opportunity to acknowledge that a young vineyard area can produce top-quality wines, given the same love, interest, skill and money that has been lavished on European vineyards for centuries.”
Yet the Paris tasting had farreaching consequences. It demonstrated to Europeans and Americans alike that the United States (and possibly other New World countries) actually could produce world-class wines. In America it inspired the wine industry to raise its standards and to begin thinking of “world class” as a goal. In Europe it led winemakers to look to American wine with a new appreciation and respect. The realization that great wine could come from vineyards that did not have centuries of grape-growing history behind them suggested to people on both sides of the Atlantic that they had to rethink what great wine was all about. In short, the Paris tasting woke everyone up. It presaged radical change, in the Old World as well as the New.