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We'll Always Have Paris

 

Collectively or individually, each of us experiences seminal events – happenings that forever change the arcs of our everyday lives.

For a society, these events may be catastrophes – the Kennedy and King assassinations, 9/11 – or technological leaps – the invention of the internet, the first electronic commerce transaction.  Political campaigns have them, witness Ed Muskie’s tears, Howard Dean’s war whoop, Mario Rubio’s sampling of himself.  Personally, it may be an electric glance across a crowded room, a spoken word that can never be erased, a moment’s inattention in an automobile.

The American wine industry had such a seminal moment 40 years ago – although no one recognized it immediately – when the Englishman Steven Spurrier in 1976 conducted a comparative tasting of American and French wines in his Paris shop that happened to be reported as a curiosity piece in Time magazine.  It became known as The Judgment of Paris, and if you’re one of the five people reading this piece who has never heard the story, take five minutes now to Google it.  We’ll wait.

The importance of Paris is it quickly gave legitimacy to American wine, which then meant California wine.  Before Paris, most East Coast drinkers who knew what wine was outside a communion service thought of California wine primarily as “hearty Burgundy” that came in jugs.  Even in San Francisco restaurants, nearby Napa and Sonoma wines seldom were denizens of their padded wine lists.  That was French territory.

Forty years later, only people born before 1960 actually remember reading in real time the Time magazine story or the newspaper remixes that immediately followed.  But Paris is still relevant and still fun to relive.  Spurrier, an acquaintance and colleague on the writing trail, is still very much with us – a true gentleman and delightful raconteur.  As is the original writer of the Time piece and later author of a book on the topic, George Taber, whom I’ve never met.

This 40th anniversary is a year filled with events, even a promised new film, recognizing the continuing importance of what happened.  Some of them are Fourth of July-style reenactments, some repurposed tastings comparing today’s recognized and unrecognized wine regions, some, such as one I attended recently in New York, bearing witness to the continuing relevance of the two Napa Valley wineries whose bottles came out on top in 1976 – Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Montelena for its Chardonnay.

Montelena is still owned by the Barrett family, and Stag’s Leap is now owned by a joint venture of Chateau Ste. Michelle of Washington state and Marchesi Antinori of Italy.  These historically paired wineries fortunately decided to take a brief road trip together to discuss with the press where the wineries are today and to taste current vintages of their signature wines.

The Barretts – Bo and Heidi and their grown children – are still very engaged at Montelena and with the other boutique wineries they own, but they were represented in New York by their current winemaker, Matt Crafton, a Virginian whose first experience as a cellar rat was on the East Coast.  As Stag’s Leap winemaker Marcus Notaro notes, the winery’s founder and original winemaker, Warren Winiarski, still lives on the estate and has his own commercial vineyard.

The great thing about both estates is they took their seminal event as a challenge for the future and not as one glorious achievement never to be repeated.  Each could have cashed in on their instant reputation by putting out commemorative plonk that they could sell for generations while their neighbors snickered.  Or they could have become ossified, their wineries little more than pompous, vinous museums. Neither happened.

The wines we tasted in New York from each winery were excellent, no surprise as both have continued to make great wines and to be recognized for doing so.  Although I have never, to the best of my knowledge, tasted the vintages that won in Paris, I have no doubt that the recent bottles of Stag’s Leap Cabs and Montelena Chards are much superior to those baseline models.  And people who want to visit these historic wineries will find them open to the public and more vibrant than ever.  For those who simply want to experience the wines, they are readily available everywhere – for a price.

The greatest seminal events, I believe, are those that we take as encouragement to do better, not as an excuse to do less.

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Comments

Yes we will always have Paris but tha place is full of Rats

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