Last night I was invited to help judge a wine tasting to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Judgement of Paris. It was staged at Sager + Wilde, and was hosted by the mastermind of the 1976 event, Steven Spurrier. It's a legendary story in the wine trade, in which a panel of mostly French judges preferred Californian wines to French. Quelle horreur! It marked the first moment that new world wine was acknowledged as capable of beating with the world's established classics. Forty years later, its influence on today's wine trade can still be felt.
Copying the original lineup of wines was not the objective; rather it was to taste some of the best contemporary wines of California and France and to judge which were best. Organiser Michael Sager-Wilde did a fantastic job of finding the wines - in each case, he asked the California producers who they modelled their wine on, and chose the French wine accordingly. There was a panel of 17 judges (some of which are pictured above, before the competition began), composed of sommeliers, MWs, writers, experts and buyers, plus an audience of 53 guests.
Seven pairs of wines were poured blind and we were simply asked to state which wine in each pair we preferred. Inevitably, the temptation was to try and identify the origin and grape variety - but that was besides the point. This contest was about whichever wines we personally liked.
I had a clear favourite in every flight, which concurred with the overall judge's votes in all but one instance (which was flight six).
Tatomer, Kick-on Ranch Riesling 2013 Santa Barbara County (Judges: 8, Public: 33)
André Ostertag, Heissenberg Riesling 2014 Alsace (Judges: 9, Public: 19)
Verdict? While the judges marginally preferred the Ostertag, the combined vote gives it to the Tatomer.
Kutch Chardonnay 2014 Santa Cruz Mountains (Judges: 8, Public: 20)
Dom Guy Roulot 2012 Bourgogne (Judges: 9, Public: 33)
Verdict? The Roulot wins by a decent margin, although the judges were very close again.
Scholium Project, The Prince In His Caves Farina Vineyards 2014 Sonoma Mountain (Judges: 9, Public: 25)
Sébastien Riffault, Saulétas 2010 Sancerre (Judges: 6, Public: 24)
Verdict? The Californian wine edges it. These two Sauvignon Blancs were both made in a natural style, and were not typical reflections of the variety.
Dom de la Côte, La Côte Pinot Noir 2012 Sta Rita Hills (Judges: 12, Public: 21)
Dom Dujac 2012 Morey-St-Denis (Judges: 5, Public: 30)
Verdict? Close! I love both these producers, and the wines were stunning, but the Dujac just won in this instance. Both are fantastic wines - but I preferred the Dom de la Côte myself.
A Tribute to Grace Grenache 2013 Santa Barbara County (Judges: 4, Public: 25)
Tardieu Laurent, Cuvée Spéciale 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Judges: 13, Public: 28)
Verdict? France wins this round - mostly thanks to the judges' votes.
Wind Gap, Armagh Syrah 2013 Sonoma Coast (Judges: 7, Public: 18)
Stéphane Ogier, Village 2010 Côte-Rôtie (Judges: 10, Public 33)
Verdict? The French wine wins comfortably here, but this is the one time I personally disagreed with the verdict.
Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Mount Veeder (Judges: 8, Public: 19)
Ch Sociando-Mallet, Jean Gautreau 2010 Haut-Médoc (Judges: 8, Public: 32)
Verdict? The Bordeaux wins here, although the judges were tied.
If you take the total votes, then France beats California 5-2 in this contest. What does that signify? Well, it's not going to change the wine world like the 1976 event did, but these kinds of events are great ways of assessing the prowess of countries - and if they galvanise winemakers to be competitive and keep working to improve their wines, then everyone wins.