That’s what it was, in effect. Months of planning had culminated this past Thursday in our modern-day recreation of the 1976 Paris Tasting, the tasting heard ’round the world that forever changed the global perception of California wine. Close to sixty people, including four panelists, gathered together to see if all the gains made in the last thirty years in technology, knowledge and awareness about wine had made a difference to the not-quite-age-old question of whether France or California makes better wine.
The panelists included two of the judges from the original tasting, Steven Spurrier (the organizer of the first event and now of Decanter) and Christian Vanneque (pronounced Van-kay, then of Tour d’Argent and now a publisher in Indonesia of all places). The panel was also represented by the ‘New Guard’ of Robert Bohr (of Cru) and myself (of Acker). Our panel of experts was only four but very experienced and internationally represented with a Brit, a Frenchman and two Americans and a mix of age groups. The wine-loving group that attended was quite diverse as well with different age groups, nationalities, and genders and an excellent census overall.
We had followed the same format of the original tasting and tried to recreate a similar selection of wine types, qualities and range of vintages. There were eleven whites and eleven reds, six of each from California. The order was selected out of a hat by our own Dave Hamburger. Before the tasting started, Steven noted to someone how the lineup we had assembled was even ‘better’ than the original assortment, perhaps a subconscious admission that the quality of wines today is higher than thirty years ago, an opinion trumpeted by Robert Parker himself when the opportunity arises. All the whites were served, votes were collected and a discussion followed between the group and our panelists. The identities of the white wines were revealed, and then we did it all over again with the reds. The most significant difference between the two events was the voting system. Before in Paris, each judge voted on the European-standard, 20-point system and all the votes were added and tallied. Since this was an American audience more accustomed to the 100-point system, and since most of the audience was not a wine professional like in Paris and perhaps not prepared or comfortable in rating every wine exactly, we stuck to our usual and effective system of asking people to select their five favorite wines (for both the whites and then the reds) and giving five points to every first-place vote and one for every fifth place vote, etc. We then tallied all the votes, keeping the panelists’ votes separate from the group.
After a slow start (the wine service was a bit delayed) and a detailed introduction about the event and words from myself, George Taber and Steven Spurrier, we were officially ready to begin. George was actually the catalyst to this event with his recently-released book ‘Judgment of Paris: California Vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.’ He was looking over the summer to set up some events this Fall to promote his book, and once the book ended up on my desk, a recreation of the tasting was the first thing that came to mind. The book is a great read for any and all wine lovers so pick up a copy!
White #1 had a buttery, tropical and lightly minty nose with good minerality and pleasant wax aromas. The mango, banana and pineapple fruit in the nose made me think Cali as the wine sweetened in the glass. The wine had a rich, oily mouthfeel, both buttery and nutty but also with a touch of bitter wood flavors on its finish. Its finish was medium-bodied and subtle, and I felt the wine did not gain in the glass. Overall, it was very good but not a thrilling glass of Chardonnay, at least for me (91).
The group gave the wine 57 votes, good enough for sixth place, and the two of the panel’s four members also had it in their ‘Top 5,’ which was enough to have it finish in third place for the panel! When the group’s and panel’s votes were merged, the wine actually fell to seventh place over all, one of the few wines where the merged results made a difference in the overall placement of the wine. The panel did represent less than ten percent of the overall vote, of course, so that makes sense. The wine, by the way, was the 2003 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Remember, none of the wines’ identities were revealed until after everyone had tasted all of the whites and voted, all of this happening before any organized discussion. The second white was more refined and elegant with a great m eacute;lange of nut, minerals, smoke, popcorn, slate and earth in its nose. There was great verve and an elegant, distinguished spine to the wine. Tasty and toasty with an excellent balance to the palate, the wine lingered well, held well and kept improving in the glass (94).
It was the 2002 Joseph Drouhin Beaune Blanc ‘Clos des Mouches,’ one of my pet white wines that happened to be at the original tasting as well. The panel gave the wine five overall votes, good enough for a tie for fifth place for the panel, but the group did not notice this wine very much and it finished in last place with only 20 votes. The panel’s votes did not affect its overall placement. Personally, it was my fourth favorite white wine of the night. White #3 had a handicap as both Robert and I were convinced that the ‘red’ bottle was corked (each of the three bottles had their own color code on the tables). My following note came from another bottle. Despite this handicap, the group gave this wine 87 votes and a third place finish! No one on the panel voted for the wine. There were some nice bread aromas to the nose, some expressive minerality and acidity, and a flash of sweet caramel underneath. The palate was taut, stony and smoky with lots of spiny and spicy alcohol to its finish. Big, good and with potential, the 2002 Aubert Chardonnay ‘Ritchie Vineyard’ flirted with excellence but still felt like a bit of a baby (92+).
The fourth white wine had an incredibly exotic nose unlike any other white. The wine jumped out of its glass kicking and screaming with lots of exotic white and yellow floral aromas and loads of jasmine but also a unique, pungent, limestone kink. The palate was crisp and clear with lots of minerality, great balance and a stylish impression, but it seemed to lack this potential extra dimension that I wanted it to have; it was excellent, but I wanted it to be even more, and I thought that vintage might be a factor. Exotic and stony, its nose kept singing, but its palate did not expand (93). Chablis must have been a bit more difficult to make in 2001, as the wine was the 2001 Raveneau Chablis ‘Les Clos,’ another one of my favorite things. The group gave the wine 31 votes, good enough for only tenth place. No one on the panel voted for it.
The next white was our fifth wine of the evening, and it finished in fourth place for the group, receiving 83 votes and one additional vote from the panel, my own. That technically had it tied for seventh place on the panel. Its nose was smoky and musky with nice vigor and minerals but more musk. There was an exotic orange and tangerine oil edge in a very dry way. Some baked honey was like a playful kiss of sweetness, and the palate had a delicious molasses and caramel kink, but not an overly sweet one. The finish had the biggest expression so far, like a wave of activity. Its flavors were pure and white smoky, and the wine had a good balance of both Old and New World sensibilities (94+). It was good to see one of Cali’s classics fare well, especially since the owner, Mike Grgich, was in the audience! It was the 2001 Grgich Hills Chardonnay, ‘Carneros Selection.’ White #6 had a serious yet unyielding nose, muted and shy yet still deep at the same time. There were lots of minerals in its subtly penetrating nose with whiffs of alcohol and acidity tickling my nose like the hot breath of a mysterious woman on the back of my neck. Long, citric and bright, the wine was like a coiled snake that needed time to be charmed. It coated the mouth more so than any other wine with great stone, earth, mineral and citrus flavors. A touch of smoke added itself to the mix, and the wine kept expanding in the glass over time, practically exploding with time. It was the outstanding 2002 Lafon Meursault ‘Charmes,’ my personal third favorite wine of the night (95). The group gave the Lafon 54 votes, good enough for only seventh place, and the panel had it in fourth place overall with six additional votes. Interestingly enough, when the panel and the group’s votes were merged, the Lafon fell to eighth place overall. It was very close between fifth and ninth place I should add, separated by only eight votes. Speaking of that, the next wine, white #7, received 53 votes, edged out by theLafon for an eighth place finish while the panel had it tied for fifth place with an additional five votes. Again, when the group and panel were merged, the wine fell a spot in the rankings, which will become clear why, soon enough. White #7 had lots of spiny vigor in the nose but a pinch more tropicality than the previous wine, not overtly but there. There was nice pungency here in this excellent wine and great balance and length. It seemed to be the biggest bridge between the New and Old World so far, I wrote. Its sweetness kept creeping out in the nose, but its spine on the finish kept kicking in this 2001 Kistler Chardonnay ‘McCrea Vineyard’ (94). White #8 was quite popular, receiving 100 votes from the group, which was good enough for a clearly second-place finish. It only got one vote from the panel, though, again technically tied for seventh place there. The nose was very spiny, spicy and vigorous, quite pungent and intense. There were secondary aromas of citrus, cotton, smoke and a flash of banana. The palate was much more one-dimensional, to me that is. It was very brawny and woodsy and clumsy in that regard. There were caramel flavors, but I found the wine to be overly bitter. Big and rich but lacking a center, this wine had a big kick and expanded but failed to define itself for me on the palate, although I saw that there was a lot of potential for this wine to improve. It was the 2001 Marcassin Chardonnay ‘Marcassin Vineyard’ (91+).
The last group of three wines was fascinating in that two of the three were clearly the favorites of the panel and the third was clearly the favorite of the group. White #9 had a nose that I like to categorize as ‘Mmmm.’ It was clearly the best nose of the night so far, pungent in that ‘just right’ way and bristling with minerals, nut, popcorn and smoke. It struck me as being a wine from Domaine Leflaive well it was. The palate was young and searing cold in a way, finish-heavy but oh so young. Its palate was dominated by its alcohol and minerality, and there is a long, promising future ahead for the 2000 Domaine Leflaive Batard Montrachet (96). The Leflaive was my second favorite white wine of the night, and it received a whopping 15 votes from the panel, clearly at the top of all of our lists and overall the panel’s second favorite wine. However, the wine finished in ninth place overall amongst the group with only 52 votes. Remember, eighth place received 53 votes, seventh place 54, and sixth place 57, so it was close. If the panel’s votes were merged, the Leflaive jumped to sixth place, the most significant change when the votes were combined. The tenth white of this historical event was the winner of the first half of the evening, receiving 114 votes from the group, a clear margin for first place. However, this wine received no votes from the panel! ‘Back to tropicality,’ I wrote. Reined in and somewhat dormant, there were still aromas of honey, mango, banana and some smoke. The palate had a bitter, rubbery finish, but its tropical flavors and oily texture were impressive. However, the wine seemed more one-dimensional to me (perhaps because it was served after the Leflaive), and the palate seemed woodsy and brawny overall. It was the 2002 Peter Michael Chardonnay ‘Belle Cote’ (90). The last wine received all four first place votes from the panel. It was indubitably the best wine according to our panel of experts and also received 60 votes from the group, good enough for a fifth place finish there. Ironically, adding the panel’s 20 votes to the group’s 60 did not affect its final placement, which would have remained fifth, albeit a lot closer to the other top four scorers. Back to the wine the 2001 Coche-Dury Puligny Montrachet ‘Les Ensiegneres’ was stupendous. I had heard rumors that Coche-Dury himself has said that his 2001s are even better than his 2000s or 1999s, and now I am a firm believer that those rumors are true. Wow! Intense, complex, rich, long and balanced, there was everything I could want in my young white Burgundy, including a degree of approachability. The classic Coche-Dury flavors and aromas of nut, kernel, minerals, earth and yellow fruits were all in perfect harmony on this night (97).
For the record again, the top five wines of the group were:
1. 2002 Peter Michael ‘Belle Cote’
2. 2001 Marcassin ‘Marcassin Vyd’
3. 2002 Aubert ‘Ritchie Vyd’
4. 2001 Grgich Hills ‘Carneros Selection’
5. 2001 Coche-Dury Puligny Montrachet ‘Enseigneres’
However, the top five wines of the panel were:
1. 2001 Coche-Dury Puligny Montrachet ‘Enseigneres’
2. 2000 Domaine Leflavie Batard Montrachet
3. 2003 Chateau Montelena
4. 2002 Lafon Meursault ‘Charmes’
5. 2002 Drouhin Beaune Blanc ‘Clos des Mouches, 2001 Kistler ‘McCrea Vineyard’ TIE`
Merging the group with the panel did not change the order of the top five wines.
So where did the first half of the tasting leave us? For my palate and the rest of the panel, it was clear how overall, the French wines were better. The way that the Coche-Dury and Leflaive stood apart from the pack was by many lengths. My top four wines were French Burgundies, but the top four preferred by the group, the masses if you will, were all Californian! The line was being towed carefully in the discussion about palates and experience as our expert panelists, steadfast in their opinion about the fact that Burgundy really won this head-to-head match up (46 of our 60 total votes went to Burgundies), were careful not to dismiss public opinion while trying to justify those of our own. The best way to sum up the difference is that the California wines had a tropicality, a sweetness, a forward quality and approachability that the Burgundies did not. This is not to say that the California wines did not have style, balance, or substance, either. For my tastes, there is nothing even close to White Burgundy as far as white wine goes; there is a snap, crackle and pop inherent in the terroir as well as a natural acidity that can be extraordinary when Mother Nature is compliant. I thought to myself, ‘is this a natural course of wine drinking evolution?’ I have always been pro-Californian and supportive of the area, as the wines of California were my first love and are for many wine drinkers. I have seen more often than not though, a gravitation towards the styles of the Old World after a few years of collecting or serious wine-drinking, myself included. Did people just need more exposure or was it me who was over-exposed? Why did I find the two most popular wines more on the clumsy, brawny and woodsy side and not find as much enjoyment here? I felt a bit like a radical for a moment, someone with a contrarian opinion that might not necessarily get out of there alive if it got ugly. It was the classic Pamela Anderson versus Grace Kelly debate (can you guess which wine is which?). Despite the opinions of the panel, the masses had spoken and California (and Pamela) had a clear cut victory. However, due to that contrarian opinion of the experts, the victory had a serious asterisk, and then the question that beckoned was whether the opinion of the panel weighed more than the public’s or not? When Steven was asked if he thought that the French public would vote the same as our American constituency, Steven said that he would be very surprised if it did. One excellent point arose from Ray, who asked me on the side what I thought would happen if we did the same tasting with these very same wines and vintages ten years from now, inferring that the white Burgundies would pull away over time from these Californians.
There was no time to dilly dally, however, and we had to move on to the reds. The tasting was running well over our time expectations and although no one was in a hurry to go, we wanted to keep things moving. Now, this tasting was an incredible amount of logistics, one that found me getting up from my seat a little more than I would have liked, and I did feel a bit of palate fatigue while tasting the reds. I gave all of myself to evaluating the whites (and getting the tasting to run smoothly); perhaps that was a little too much, and Ray poured twenty Spanish wines down my throat the night before, which didn’t help either. While I am still confident in my overall perceptions of the wine, I do feel that I was missing an eye, or palate I suppose, for nuance and subtlety after halftime, so the deck would be personally stacked against the wines of Bordeaux as I would soon find out. I am not trying to make any excuses but rather to provide a little personal context for what lies ahead.
Red #1 rang like an alarm clock that we were in Cabernet land. The nose was big, rich and balanced with nice vim. There were hearty cassis aromas and also minerals, cedar, smoke and a great balance between its alcohol and acidity, veritable scales of justice lingering in the air. There was great potential in the nose, for sure. The palate was rich and long at first but did not hold together in the glass that well, or perhaps that was me. Charcoal and grapy flavors marked its chalky finish, and I wondered about bottle variation (91+). Sure enough, this wine finished in last place with only 26 votes and no votes from the panel. It was the 2001 Chateau Montelena Cabernet. The second red’s nose was much milder by comparison with some leather, sole, light cedar, black fruit and coffee aromas. The nose was deep but not spiny, and the palate produced a lot of smoke and cedar flavors, spicy tannins and alcohol, more tannins than alcohol yet bright overall with a great grip. There was lots of minerality to this almost overly dry wine (93). I guess the group was still warming to the reds, as this 2002 Leoville Las Cases only received 34 votes and a 10th place finish. Again, the panel did not have any votes for this wine. Red #3 was a big hit, accumulating 76 votes from the group and a third-place finish. It also tied for second place on the panel with a respectable ten votes there. However, it was one my least favorite and lowest scored wines of the entire night. The wine was forward but also marked by green bean. There was some chunky fruit behind that, but the green bean stayed in charge of this red. There was also some chalk, light dust, earth and sugar snap pea joined its vegetable side. The finish had some spark, but the wine was more medium than full and softer overall. The green marked the flavors as well, and that is not one of my favorite things (85). It was the 2001 Sociando-Mallet, which was a very good show overall for this afterthought despite my own personal feelings on the wine. The fourth red had an exotic, super sexy nose with sweet fruits such as black cherry, boysenberry, cassis, blackberry and blueberry. There was a candied edge but in a handmade caramel from Guy Savoy kind of way. The fruit was quite psychedelic. On the palate, the wine was enormous, eliciting a ‘wow’ from me. There was a huge finish and heavy extraction – this wine summed up quite nicely why I love a good Cali Cab unless it’s a Bordeaux, I wrote. Big flavors of coffee, mineral, slate and cedar rounded out the wine, which thankfully was a Californian (96). The 2001 Robert Foley Claret scored well, finishing in sixth place with 60 votes. There were only four votes from the panel, and they were all mine, as this was my second favorite wine of the night. It was a sign of things to come.
We continued on with the fifth red, which had a nice nose that was shier yet still interesting with its aromas of carob, leather, earth, smoke and cedar. The palate was less interesting, though, with a sparkle to the finish but overall at a disinteresting stage. I did not get much out of it, that’s for sure (90+?) However, the rest of the panel loved this wine, giving it 12 votes, good enough for a first place finish! The group vote count equaled 51 which meant 9th place for the 2000 Mouton Rothschild. Sacre bleu! I have had the wine before and liked it a lot more – was it me at this stage of the night? Do young Cali Cabs overwhelm young Bordeaux in a head-to-head situation? Why was I starting to veer from the rest of the panel, since we were all basically in sync for the whites? Those are all the things I thought about once the wine’s identity was revealed. The sixth red finished in the group’s overall top five, in fourth place in fact with 72 votes. There was only one vote from the panel, as it was my own fifth place finisher. The wine had a boatload of exotic, blueberry syrup like fruit; as exotic as the Foley was, this took it up a notch, which turned out to be a surprise for me as I had a much different impression of the wine when I had it before this year. In fact, I had picked the wine as I felt it would be more similar to a Bordeaux in the context of the event and my past experience. There were additional, baked ginergbread aromas. Its t ‘n a were supporting yet in the background underneath its rich fruit. The palate was great, more classic yet still more exotic than I expected, both rich and fleshy and with good cedar spice and flavors on the finish. It was the 2001 Constant Cabernet (95). It was another surprise, top five finish. The seventh wine ended up being my own personal favorite, which carried it to a fifth place finish on the panel with seven votes. The group also had it in fifth place with 62 votes. It was another exotic nose with huge jasmine andexotic Asian spices on the nose and some lingonberry syrup action. Gingerbread and yes, pina colada, danced around my nostrils in an awe-inspiring, Amazonian way. The palate was enormous; huge, mouthfilling, long and longer. The palate was extraordinary and enormous, a King Kong amongst gorillas. The funny thing about this wine is that a friend of mine, whose palate I respect, had the wine the week before and trashed it. It was the 2000 Harlan Estate (96+). Wow, indeed. I was stunned by the Harlan’s showing. I figured if one wine could bear the burden of carrying the 2000 flag (not a great California vintage), it would be the Harlan, and I was right. There is no doubt in my mind that Harlan Estate produces California’s best Cabernet. It almost always wins every blind Cab tasting it is inserted into, my votes included, or it is pretty close to the top of the countdown. It isn’t such a secret as soon the 1994 and 1997 vintages will be over $1000 a bottle at the way the market has been going. I have another Harlan story, but I will save that for later. The eighth wine of the second session had a mild nose by comparison, seemingly shy, smooth and easy in the nose, although I felt that there was something lurking in the shadows. The palate was all about the finish for me, sandy, dusty, earthy and with lots of potential, but its front and mid-palate did little for me at this stage. This wine was hibernating, dormant, whatever you want to call it, but perhaps it was me as this was the most popular wine of the night, the 2000 Haut Brion, receiving 98 votes from the group and an additional ten votes from the panel, which was good for a tie for second place on the panel (90+). At the point where I knew that this was the Haut Brion, my belief that young California wines show better than young Bordeaux in comparative tastings was confirmed, but then I asked myself the question: why did the group and the panel think differently and like this wine so much versus me? Was the fact thatthe California wines stood out to me a sign of strength for the Cabernets, or was it rather a weakness of mine caused by fatigue? Why were the Bordeaux wines so muted, shy and vague in the mouth to me? I was quite stunned that the two first growths were such uninspiring wines to me and so inspiring to others.
We had three wines to go, and I liked two of them – guess where they were from? Yes, they were from California. The ninth red of the night had another exotic nose – very kinky but more beefy, still seductive with its chocolate and coffee. The palate was similar with great balance and a firm finish. The wine didn’t explode on the finish like some other reds, but it did keep gaining in the glass and was one of my top five wines, this bottle of 2002 Colgin Cabernet ‘IX’ (94+). It got three votes from the panel (technically eighth place there), again all my votes I believe, and 52 votes from the group, also good for eighth place overall. Red #10 was the 2000 Montrose, which got 56 votes from the group and seventh place overall, sixth place from the panel with its five votes. Now this was a wine that I just had two weeks ago and found to be outstanding, rating it 95 points. This bottle was far from that experience. I found myself about halfway between pomp and circumstance. This bottle, or the experience of this bottle in the context of the evening, was above average but not even very good. I gave the wine 88 points and found it uninteresting overall. All three wines from the 2000 vintage did not rock my socks on this night. Again, I was suffering from some palate fatigue in the second part of the night, but regardless the discrepancies were large. The last wine was the second most popular wine of the night (77 votes) and also happened to be the first place finisher in 1976. Even the panel had it in fourth place with 8 votes. It was the 2001 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet ‘Cask 23,’ a forgotten soldier amongst today’s cult superstars. The nose was an all-around classic, rich with nice cedar and a palate with excellent length and a lot of class. Unfortunately, that’s about all that I was able to scratch up by this stage for notes (94).
So the top five reds of the group were:
1. 2000 Haut Brion
2. 2001 Stag’s Leap ‘Cask 23’
3. 2001 Sociando Mallet
4. 2001 Constant
5. 2000 Harlan
The top five of the panel were:
1. 2000 Mouton
2. 2000 Haut Brion and 2001 Sociando Mallet (TIE)
4. 2001 Stag’s Leap ‘Cask 23’
5. 2000 Harlan
If the panel’s votes were merged with the group, it would have flip-flopped second and third places with the Sociando coming ahead by one single vote. It also would have flip-flopped sixth and seventh places, and eighth and ninth places. The top three wines were separate from the pack regardless, but fourth place through eighth place was all within a range of ten votes after the merge, very close. Ninth place (now the Colgin) wasn’t that much farther behind; only the last two wines (Las Cases and Montelena) were significantly lower in their vote totals.
The panel had 37 of its 60 votes go to the French wines, a closer margin than the whites, but if it were not for me the percentage would have been a lot higher. My top five wines were all Californian Cabernets. Now I have made the statement before that I believe the greatest Bordeaux are significantly better after age 30, and this tasting certainly seemed to cement that opinion in a very personal space, one right next to Jimmy Hoffa in the Giants end zone, which is right where many people would probably like to see it. In my mind, there is no doubt as to the superiority of California Cabernets at a younger age than the wines of Bordeaux from an enjoyment perspective, ESPECIALLY when matched up head-to-head. The richness and ripeness of California Cabernets overwhelm young Bordeaux. These Bordeaux wines, on their own, might have caused me to tell a different story. Again, Ray made his point about doing the tasting many years from now, and the point was a good one. There have been a handful of California producers that have proven their wines can age for decades: Heitz, Montelena, Dunn, Ridge to name a good chunk of them. With the new explosion of ‘cult’ wines in the nineties, the list of California’s elite producers have changed, and only time will tell if these new wines can age 30+ years gracefully.
So what can I personally say after recreating this historical tasting? One, it needs to be done with older wines – a separate experiment that I will be sure to recreate within the next year publicly or privately. Two, what the public likes and what wine experts like are not necessarily the same thing. I thought about this fact and why certain reviewers were more popular than others. Three, the event reminds me of that Harlan story I mentioned earlier. I said how Harlan always seems to win all the blind tastings it is in, how great I think their wines are, etc., even showing well at this event with the handicap of the 2000 vintage. So one day a while back, I decided for fun to bring a bottle of Harlan, I think it was 1997, over to one of the country’s leading Burgundy collectors and aficionados, let’s call him Don. It was a bottle that I had purchased for an event and never used, and I was eager to show Don that California could make some world-class wine, too. After warming up with a delicious Raveneau Chablis and then enjoying a fabulous 1969 Leroy Musigny, it was time for me to break out the Harlan, but after these two great Burgundies, the Harlan seemed dazed and confused, lost in the glass, and emperor without any clothes. Don quickly resumed getting to know his Musigny better, and I sat there dumbfounded and stunned that my Harlan did not shine on this occasion. Now, it could have been an off bottle, or perhaps the ghosts of Burgundy past exorcizing this demon in one of their most hallowed places, Don’s dining room :). Given how the whites showed and given this timely story about Harlan, this recreation of the 1976 Paris tasting, the New York Tasting of 2005, reminded me one important thing: that Burgundies are the greatest wines on Earth. That was MY moral of this story.