Lifestyle / Food And Drink

Wine Wizard
2 minute read
2 Jun 2014
7:00 am

Californian wines for the palate

Wine Wizard

In a tasting which changed the way the world looked at wine growing regions, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman working in Paris, decided to host a France versus California tasting as part of the American Bicentenary celebrations in 1976

Picture: Thinkstock.

. It was a remarkably casual affair, though among the panellists there were enough credible figures – top producers from both sides of the Atlantic – to ensure the results would stand the scrutiny to which they were to become subjected.

For the participants (and, if public opinion had been polled) the results were a foregone conclusion: a line-up of top French wines was pretty much the gold standard of quality and there was (so it seemed) no chance at all that the Californians could even nudge the French off their perch. It came therefore not simply as a surprise – it was much more of a seismic shock – when the Americans dominated the top rankings of both the red and white wines.

The initial response (other than disbelief) was that the tasters must have been incompetent. How could they not tell – if only from the flavour profile of the wines – which was French and which was Californian? And then surely the French judges would have voted for their own. It turned out that most of the top choices had enjoyed widespread support. This famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting catapulted the New World into the strongholds of the Old and launched the Californian wine industry on its international trajectory.

There is an interesting corollary. Thirty years later it was staged again – both with younger vintages and, where possible, with the actual wines which had been judged in 1976. Now everyone was certain that the French would triumph – after all, common wisdom held that Californian wines wouldn’t stand the test of time. To everyone’s astonishment the Americans waltzed home clear winners.

It’s easy to imagine that the best Californian wines are a caricature of America, Big Mac v 3-Star Michelin cuisine – and indeed there are any number of “monster” wines produced wherever the sun shines and technology is applied to achieve this result. However – and this is a truth encountered wherever careful selectors choose wines made by thoughtful producers – there are also fabulous wines from Napa, Russian River, Oregon and Washington State (to name but a few of the top regions) which don’t fit the stereotype.

If the Rand were stronger, and the tax less, we might even get to taste them in South Africa.

For more information visit