A journalist recently asked me to comment on the impact of the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting of California and French wines. The California wines were very competitive, according to the scores given by the panel of French judges, and wines from the Napa Valley actually topped both the Cabernet and Chardonnay lists. Amazing.
Time magazine reporter George M. Taber was the only journalist in attendance and his exclusive story about the unexpected American victory was a shot heard round the world. His 2005 book, Judgment of Paris is worth reading and even re-reading today.
What if … ?
Would Napa Valley have grown and developed if the Judgment of Paris had not taken place? Well, yes, I answered, there was already a good deal of momentum stimulated by, among other things, the successful opening in 1966 of the Robert Mondavi Winery, the first major new winery in the valley since Prohibition.
In fact, local residents were already concerned about the masses of wine tourists clogging local roads and highways and over-whelming winery facilities back in 1972 when a KPIX Eyewitness News reporter paid a visit to see what was happening. Click here or on the image below to watch the vintage video report.
And there was already international attention, too. Domaine Chandon, the Yountville outpost of the famous French Champagne house Môet Chandon, opened in 1973, three years before the famous Paris tasting.
On the Road Again
So the Napa Valley was already on the road to big things even before the Paris tasting. But just about everyone agrees that the international recognition changed things.
It changed things for Napa and for California, but the impact didn’t stop there. Towards the end of his book, George Taber takes a bit of a global tour, showing us how the world of wine broadened as the result of a number of forces including, of course, the new perspective on New World wine that the 1976 tasting provoked.
Revisiting the Napa Valley years after the Paris tasting, to gather insights for his 2005 book, Taber could see the result of the intense focus that his astute reporting helped create. There was growth, for sure, and lots of new investment, both domestic and by a long list of international wine luminaries including, of course, the Rothschilds who partnered with Robert Mondavi in 1978, just two years after the Judgment, to build Opus One.
Taber was concerned about how the boom was unfolding. Enormous wealth, vanity vineyards, trophy wines. “The Napa Valley unfortunately became another proof of the maxim that nothing succeeds like excess.” And a good indicator of excess, he proposed, was the price of vineyard land. Warren Winiarski paid about $2000 per acre in 1970 for the first Stag’s Leap vineyard, Taber reported. In 1999 the owner of Far Niente winery paid $100,000 an acre for a 42-acres vineyard, which seemed like a lot. Francis Ford Coppola raised the stakes just a few years later, paying $300,000 an acre, a jaw-dropping price at the time.
Now, of course, $300,000 an acre for Napa Valley vineyards is not noteworthy or exceptional. $300,000 to $500,000 per vineyard acre (adjusting for the value of any production or housing assets) seems to be the norm, with some particular parcels going for even more. The excess that Taber saw 20 years ago has not diminished.
Money, Taste, and Wine
Naturally this is reflected in the wine. Not all of it, of course, but it is easy to see a pattern. The focus in Napa is increasingly on its signature grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon. I am sure this is about taste — the best Napa Cabs I’ve tried are really good — but it is also about money, I think.
Cabernet is the grape of Bordeaux, too, and some people are happy to pay much more for Cabernet than they would for Zinfandel, which was once widely grown in the valley but now not-so-much. Sky-high land prices require high grape prices which mean high bottle prices for the wine. King Cabernet is the surest bet, many believe, and so it increasingly carpets the valley floor.
Many of the wines are really distinctive — Sue and I have tasted some real stunners! — but some of them taste the same to my amateur palate. I call them Napa Valley Red Wine. Maybe this is true of all wine regions, even the great ones? In Napa they often sell for more than $100 a bottle and seem to satisfy the thirst of buyers looking for the taste of Napa.
They Think I’m Bragging
I am not the only one who is concerned about how the wines of Napa Valley have changed and how the flood of tourist dollars and investor wealth has led to excess. But whenever I bemoan certain aspects of the Napa wine industry environment to international audiences, they think that I am just bragging. All those tourists and fancy restaurants! All the celebrities and trophy wines! Such economic success and pure opulence!
Napa Valley is a dream to international wine visitors, and for foreign winery owners who long for their own Napa moment, their own Judgment of Paris. Who can blame them?
But what if the Judgment never happened? If you know the story, you can appreciate that it could easily not have taken place (of the results could have turned out differently). Napa Valley would still have grown the thrived, I think, but it would be different today. What might it look like? Come back next week to see what might have been … and is.
Thanks to Tony Correia for his help nailing down vineyard valuations. Thanks to Silicon Valley Bank’s Rob McMillan for his help locating the KPIX video, which was originally featured in a very memorable post on Rob’s blog.