On California: From Napa to Nebbiolo … Wine Tales from the Golden State edited by Susan Keevil. Académie du Vin Library, 2021.
Steven Spurrier, through both word and action, has left a remarkable enduring legacy to the world of wine, including the wine book publisher Académie du Vin Library. The Library’s very ambitious wine book list collects both classic works and new contributions (including Spurrier’s own A Life in Wine) that break from the typical “Wines of ____” (fill in the country or region) mold to address a variety of topics from many personal and professional perspective.
From Bordeaux to California
On Bordeaux, a collection of essays about that famous wine region, appeared last year. Given Spurrier’s central role in the famous 1976 France vs California “Judgement of Paris” tasting, On California seems like a natural next step, officially released last week and available directly from the publisher and via the usual sources including Amazon.com.
Much like the Library itself, On California collects classic and new perspectives on the Golden State’s wine industry. Unevenness is the typical fault of edited volumes like this one, but I have to say that the 39 essays and excerpts by 35 different authors hang together very well and make informative and enjoyable reading.
Perhaps that’s because of the strong thematic thread that runs through the volume: change. And change is everywhere here. The wine, the industry, the climate, even the history, which although quite short is now long enough that a certain amount of revision is needed. What fun to read excerpts from early essays by the likes of Hugh Johnson, Gerald Asher, and Harry Waugh alongside some of the pioneers and shapers including Warren Winniarski, Paul Draper, and Randall Grahm. Mix in Elin McCoy, Elaine-Chukan Brown, and many others and you have a complex, balanced blend indeed.
Change and resilience — two key California characteristics — are everywhere in this book, but perhaps especially in a series of chapters that trace the challenges that California wine has faced over the years. Hugh Johnson writes about Prohibition years, Jon Bonné examines the New California that emerged from the ashes, Norm Roby charts the return of Phylloxera, Elaine Chukan Brown addresses drought, wild fire, and environmental change, and finally Clare Tooley MW tackles the threat to California wines form the rising marijuana industry. Fascinating reading.
Here Comes The Judge (ment)
If you connect the dots of California + Steven Spurrier + Change you inevitably arrive at the 1976 Judgement of Paris and so it is inevitable that the famous tasting appears here with both an excerpt from George Taber’s excellent book on the subject the commentary from Spurrier and others who had a hand in the wines and the event itself.
The Judgement of Paris, where wines from California were rated higher than some famous French wines by a panel of French judges, did it change everything? No, but it changed quite a lot. It certainly made French producers question their hegemony. I have argued that maybe the biggest impact was in the way it changed Americans’ attitudes about their own wines. Suddenly there was respect after the long dark decades that followed Prohibition. The wine boom that was launched continues today.
It is interesting to speculate what California wine would look like today if France had won the 1976 competition. I ask this question with a sense of irony because, depending upon how to look at it, the French really did win (or at least didn’t lose)! Talk about revisionist history!
Here are the average scores (out of 20 points) for the red wines. The winner was Stag’s Leap by a nose. Stag’s Leap won if we add up and average the points, but did California win?
14.14 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
14.09 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970
13.64 Chateau Montrose 1970
13.23 Chateau Haut-Brion 1970
12.14 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
11.18 Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971
10.36 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970
10.14 Clos Du Val Winery 1972
9.95 Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
9.45 Freemark Abbey Winery 1969
If we judge the Judgement as a team sport and not an individual competition, the conclusion changes a bit. The four French wines scored 2, 3, 4, and 6 while the California wines ranked 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Even if you throw out the two lowest-ranked California wines to make the team’s equal in size, the result seems clear: Team France gets the gold.
The points table was a little different with the white wines. Although a California wine topped the list, I think you’d have to say the team competition was pretty much a dead heat. Still an impressive showing for California.
The situation gets even more interesting, as several studies have shown, if you dig down into the judges’ individual rankings, which varied enormously from one to another in their relative scores. The final result could have been much different, too, if the scores were treated as ordinal rankings rather than cardinal measures that can be summed up and averaged.
Does this finding matter? No. Not now. And probably not in 1976, either. The idea that California and France could be put on the same table was radical then, so the fact of Spurrier’s tasting was enough to raise eyebrows. The discovery that some of the French tasters could not tell which was which was quite a shock. That would have been enough to jump-start the changes that were already on the way.
Thanks to Académie du Vin Library and the many authors for their hard work and insights. Change is still in the air in California and On California connects the past and present with the emerging future. Well done!
An important point you make is about the individual judges very different notes & scores . Depending on the background of the tasters substantial difference in preference / bias can exist. This continues in many wine styles where significant changes to taste can be manipulated to match the trending organoleptic profile .