World Wine Olympics
August 13, 2020
How Trefethen shocked the wine world with their 1976 Napa Chardonnay
In the history of wine, there are moments that stand out as unusually pivotal, where the doors of possibility swing open. For an emerging Napa Valley, three French tastings combined to kick the door ajar. And for a young Trefethen Family Vineyards, the Gault&Millau Wine Olympics, held in Paris in 1979, and the rematch which took place in Burgundy the following year, were particularly consequential.
At the time, France was singularly dominant in producing the world’s greatest wines. Wine connoisseurs the world over believed French wines, particularly those from Burgundy and Bordeaux, to be superior to wines produced by any other nation. The idea of fine wine to rival the best of Burgundy and Bordeaux coming from a country like the United States, where there was no real wine culture, seemed absurd. The exceptional community of vintners that came together in Napa Valley in the late 1960s was committed to their craft, however, and set about making the best wines they could.
In 1976, Steven Spurrier, a young British wine merchant and educator based in Paris, visited the Napa Valley and was impressed by the quality of wines he tasted there. Returning to Paris with a few bottles from his travels, he organized his infamous “Judgement of Paris” tasting where wines from California triumphed over some of the best from France. Though American writer George Taber wrote a few favorable paragraphs about the tasting for Time magazine, most of the coverage was derisory, with the scoring methodology the subject of particular criticism. The French newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde published articles about the tasting, calling it “laughable” and saying it “cannot be taken seriously.” Steven, an acknowledged champion of French wines, who was as shocked by the result of his tasting as anyone else, was banned from the French tasting circuit for an entire year. As much as people tried to brush off Steven’s tasting, however, the results got people thinking and whether French wines truly were the best in the world was now an open question. Steven had succeeded in cracking the door open. Now, it needed a push.
In 1979, the French restaurant publication Gault&Millau’s Le Nouveau Guide tackled the issue head-on, organizing one of the largest wine tastings in history. Assembling representative wines from 33 countries, they held an “Olympiad du Vin”, in which France was expected to triumph. The judges were aghast when Napa Valley again emerged victorious. The wine this time? Our 1976 Chardonnay, which was declared “The Best Chardonnay in the World.”
As news of the results from the Wine Olympics began to make its way across the Atlantic, no one was more surprised by the results than Janet and John Trefethen. Janet, in particular, had a hard time believing the news as she had a detailed record of every restaurant or retailer that had ever purchased a bottle of Trefethen wine. According to her notes, none of our wines had ever made it to France. No one from Gault&Millau had called to request a sample for the tasting or even invite vintners from the Napa Valley to participate. How a bottle of Trefethen Chardonnay had ended up in the tasting was so mysterious that at first, Janet thought that the journalists who were calling Trefethen were mistaken, or that perhaps this was a practical joke.
Meanwhile, back in France, there were a few disgruntled wine producers in Burgundy who were having an equally hard time digesting the news. Robert Drouhin was the first to revolt, writing a letter to the founders of Le Nouveau Guide, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, in which he offered to “pick up the gauntlet” and “confront the champions of your Olmpiades” with wines from his family’s storied vineyards. The honor of Burgundy, the honor of all of France, was on the line.
Six months later, at the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, the rematch took place under the watchful eyes of the Drouhin family. And while there was certainly interest in the tasting, the result was a foregone conclusion. Surely, now, with such an august producer as Maison Joseph Drouhin involved, and with the tasting taking place in the heart of Burgundy, no one but the French had a chance. In another stunning upset, however, our 1976 Chardonnay repeated its feat from the Wine Olympics the year before, winning outright. Drouhin’s 1976 Pugligny Montrachet finished a statistically significant second. Convinced by the result, Robert Drouhin said Trefethen Chardonnay was “the yardstick by which all other Chardonnays must be measured.”
It was then time for Janet Trefethen to receive another few surprising calls. Once again, the tasting had been organized without anyone writing to or calling Trefethen, without any information about the tasting making it to Napa Valley until the results were published. Janet recovered from her surprise more quickly this time, acknowledging Trefethen’s participation in the tasting itself as an incredible honor, and an absolute thrill to emerge on top. “I hope this result will encourage more people to visit the Napa Valley and taste the wines being made here.”
The doors were now wide open, and, over the ensuing years, Napa Valley came to be seen as one of the great winemaking regions in the world, surpassing even the vision of those early Napa pioneers, the crazy ones who ignored what everyone knew, and set out to see for themselves just what was possible.
“I hope this result will encourage more people to visit the Napa Valley and taste the wines being made here.” – Janet Trefethen
Mystery of the Unknown Entry
For decades, the question of how our Chardonnay ended up in the Wine Olympics tasting remained a mystery. We had theories, of course, mostly revolving around a group of Frenchmen we had a partnership with that had come to Napa to set up Domaine Chandon (the first five vintages were produced at Trefethen.) Surely, one of them had entered the wine on our behalf. We could never confirm our suspicion, however. Then, in 2018, while celebrating our 50th Anniversary with vertical tastings of our Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in London, we learned the truth.
One tasting event, which included a few precious bottles of our 1976 Chardonnay, was led by Janet and Lorenzo Trefethen, in a conversation moderated by Steven Spurrier. While tasting the still brilliant 1976, the Trefethens told the story of the Wine Olympics. When someone asked how the wine had made it into the tasting, Steven piped up to say that he had been responsible!
As a friend of our importer in the UK, and as a judge at the Wine Olympics, it had been he who had secured the entry of our wine into the tasting. Lorenzo and Janet were flabbergasted—in the many, many years the family had known Steven, neither he nor Geoffrey Roberts, our importer at the time, had ever made clear their roles in our serendipitous early success. It seems that after all this time, there was one more surprise the Wine Olympics had reserved for us. Thank you, Steven!