The 1976 Paris Wine Tasting, also known as the Judgment of Paris, was a wine competition that took place on May 24, 1976 in Paris, France. The competition was organized by British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, to see how California wines would prove against French wines made from the same types of grapes. The French long had been considered the wine industry’s top dog. Spurrier, whose business depended heavily on the sales of French wines, organized the tasting as a publicity stunt because he thought the French wines were sure to win. He arranged a blind wine tasting involving some of France’s top wine experts. They were to judge a group of the greatest French Bordeaux and Burgundies along with some unknown California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons.

The Wines

First up to bat were the white wines. Four California Chardonnays contended with six French white Burgundies. It was a blind tasting so there were no bottle labels allowing the judges to recognize the wines. However, this did not prevent the panel of all French judges from immediately trying to distinguish their beloved crème de la crème from the underdog challengers. They tallied their scores. The results were in. To their surprise (and disappointment), the California whites ranked in three of the top four spots. A 1973 Chateau Montelena from Napa Valley, California took the top spot, with a 1973 Meursault-Charmes Burgundy from France coming in second. Ranking third place was a 1974 Chalone Vineyards Chardonnay from Monterey County, California. Fourth was a Spring Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay, also from Napa Valley. The judges were appalled and in disbelief as if they somehow had been bamboozled.

Then came the momentous tasting of the red wines, which to some are considered as more important than whites. This time, four Grand Cru Bordeaux were up against six California Cabernet Sauvignons. Feeling dismayed by the results of the first round, the judges tried desperately to single out what they thought were the California reds and make sure they didn’t win. Yet, a 1973 Cabernet from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley seized first place in the red category. French wines took the next three spots. A 1970 Château Mouton-Rothschild came in second, followed by a 1970 Château Haut-Brion and Château Montrose ranking third and fourth respectively. The judges, however, were shocked, yet again, that the California red had won first place over some of the best wines France had to offer.

The Press

Naturally, the French judges and French press did not want this information to go public and tried to conceal it. However, Spurrier had invited a Time magazine journalist named George Taber, who was there to witness the event. He published a brief article in the June 7, 1976 issue of Time magazine and spread the word of the Paris wine tasting around the world. Taber states in his article:

As they swirled, sniffed, sipped and spat, some judges were instantly able to separate an imported upstart from an aristocrat. More often, the panel was confused. “Ah, back to France!” exclaimed Oliver after sipping a 1972 Chardonnay from the Napa Valley. “That is definitely California. It has no nose,” said another judge—after downing a Batard Montrachet ’73.

According to another article on the event by Business Insider, “The poobahs of French wine were so outraged they banned Spurrier from the nation’s prestige wine-tasting tour for a year as punishment for the damage he had done to their image.” When the news reached the United States, the effect was astounding. This seemingly inconsequential event forever changed the California wine industry.

California Shines

California wines suddenly were placed in the spotlight. Over the next decade millions of dollars were invested in new wineries throughout the state and the value of wines made at the producer level increased dramatically. The 1980s was the beginning of a new era. The 1990s is considered by many as the golden decade for California wines. In its Complete Napa Valley California Wine History from Early 1800s to Today, The Wine Cellar Insider states, “1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 brought about an unequaled run of great vintages and improved levels of quality to California wine.”

In 1996, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History added the two bottles that won the Judgment of Paris to its permanent collection. The two bottles, of course, are the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon.

On May 24, 2006, Steven Spurrier arranged another wine tasting for the 30th anniversary of the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting. This time two tastings were held simultaneously, one in Napa and the other in London. Spurrier was convinced of a French victory in this reenactment. However, California took home the gold once again with a 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello coming in first place in both tastings. The panel of experts showed they preferred the California wines over their French competitors.

On June 5, 2006, the California legislature adopted Bill #ACR-153 declaring the Paris Wine Tasting of May 24, 1976 an official historic event.

In 2008, a comedy-drama film called Bottle Shock was released, chronicling the events leading up to the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting.

Before the Judgment of Paris, California wines barely could get distribution beyond the West Coast. Today, California accounts for 90% of U.S. wine exports, reaching $1.61 billion in winery revenues in 2015 according to the Wine Institute. The European Union is the largest market for California wines.

“Not bad for some kids from the sticks.” Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena