Vintage California | Judgment of Paris: How a Marketing Idea Changed…

Judgment of Paris: How a Marketing Idea Changed the Course of California Wine - Part 1

Background on the competition and why it was important

The Judgment of Paris, or the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, as it’s also known, was one of the most significant events in modern wine history. This blind tasting competition pitted Chardonnay from California against their Burgundian counterparts from France, and California Cabernets (from Napa Valley) against France’s famous Bordeaux wine. It’s worth mentioning up front that all of the judges in the blind tasting were French…

The event was organized by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, and was to take place in Paris on May 24, 1976, a date that would coincide with America’s bicentennial. What started out as a clever marketing tactic to promote Spurrier’s Paris wine shop, and demonstrate that there were wines of quality outside of the traditional European markets, quickly turned into a highly significant event, one that would ultimately help propel the California wine industry into the multibillion-dollar behemoth it is today.

The state of French wine vs. California wine

For savvy wine drinkers who enjoy California powerhouse producers like Kongsgaard, Stag’s Leap, Ridge, or Marcassin, it’s hard to imagine a time when California wine didn’t command the respect - and price per bottle - it does now. But, in the 1970s, these wines faced a number of headwinds.

Business owners across all sectors will tell you that a product is only as good as those who know about it. Despite having a wine industry as far back as the late 1800s, California wine wasn’t taken seriously in many “serious” wine circles. The problem was, wine consumers generally knew that California produced wine, but they didn’t know that the wine coming out of the Golden State was high quality wine.

At the time, the luxury wine market was dominated by French producers, and to a lesser extent, Italian producers; in other words, wine drinkers preferred Old World wines. Sophisticated drinkers knew the names of houses like Château Haut-Brion and Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive, and they were familiar with French wine regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy.

To put the state of the US wine market into greater context, the American Viticulture Area system, or AVAs, as they’re known, was not implemented until the early 1980s. Prior to that, winemakers could put whatever they wanted on a wine label, with some actively trying to mislead consumers about what was actually in the bottle.

According to the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau, the body that regulates AVAs, “An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown.”

AVAs are used to specify a wine’s appellation on wine labels.

While French wines had a sophisticated labeling system in place for over a century, the US wine market lacked such structure, and consumer trust. There was no US wine tourism industry, and most Americans couldn’t tell you where Napa Valley was, or what industry the that people who lived there were trying to establish.

U.S. Prohibition

But consumer bias was just one factor in the Old World vs. New World wine debate. US winemakers, particularly those in California where the US wine industry was more established, faced an even greater uphill battle early in the 20th century when Prohibition was instated in 1920. Prohibition, or as it’s legally known, the 18th Amendment of the US Constitution, was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages.

Thousands of acres of vineyards planted by German, Italian, Swiss, and other European immigrants were uprooted and completely destroyed. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it took decades to replant vineyards, rebuild, and reestablish the wine market. Aside from a handful of vineyards that were spared mostly under the guise of producing grapes for “sacramental wine”, which was exempt from Prohibition, winemakers and grape growers had to essentially start from scratch.

The US wine consumer vs the European wine consumer

The other piece of this equation is the US consumer. Wine from the US lacked local consumer advocates. In the decades prior to Prohibition, and in those immediately after its repeal, the US consumer could take or leave wine, and they mostly left it, preferring beer or spirits instead. It wasn’t until Baby Boomers developed an interest in wine in the 1960s and 70s, that the industry picked up steam.

This interesting chart from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, shows just how narrow the US market for wine was.

On the other hand, the average European had enjoyed wine for centuries. Wine wasn’t just a drink to be enjoyed with dinner, or a night out, wine was cultural, particularly in France where it was stitched into the national identity - and a source of national pride.

So, when Spurrier conceived the idea to pit French wines against California wines, it was assumed that the French wines would trounce the American wine. After all, French wines had long been the benchmark for fine wine, not just in terms of a quality luxury product, but in the respect the vineyards, grape growers, and winemakers had from their peers and customers alike.

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