In the world of wine, there are few moments quite as shocking as the 1976 Judgement of Paris Wine Tasting and its rematches in 1979 and 1980 in Gault Millau’s World Wine Olympics. At a time when wine connoisseurs blindly believed French wines to be superior, Napa Valley wines turned critics on their heads by outclassing the French not once, not twice, but three times in a row! We are still proud to have been part of those groundbreaking moments, and for two young winemakers, the results gave us the confidence we needed to launch our lifelong commitment to our land and our craft.
The 1976 Judgement of Paris Wine Tasting pitted California wines against French wines in an era when the market was convinced that French wines must be better. Curious to see if it was really true, British wine merchant Steven Spurrier facilitated two blind tastings of top tier wines—one of Chardonnay and the other of reds—to be judged by some of France’s most discerning palates. Scores showed that California wines outclassed the French in both categories. The competition turned out to be a defining moment in wine history, inspiring George Taber’s Judgment of Paris and the 2008 movie, Bottle Shock.
“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.” – Janet Trefethen
Shocked that American wines could outclass those of France, the publishers of the French wine publication, Gault-Millau’s Le Nouveau Guide, organized the World Wine Olympics in 1979—a challenge to the findings of the Judgment of Paris. From 586 initial entries, 330 wines from 33 wine-producing countries were selected for the final round. For whites, the 1976 Trefethen Napa Valley Chardonnay won, beating several expensive white Burgundies. For only our third commercial vintage, we were overjoyed!
But not everyone was pleased, and rightly so. Robert Drouhin, owner of Burgundy’s famous Maison Joseph Drouhin and a legend in his own right, dropped the gauntlet again, writing Gault Millau to ask for a rematch in 1980, narrowing the scope to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and pitting them against wines from his own winery.
On January 8, 1980, twenty American, French and English judges met to evaluate the wines. To Monsieur Drouhin’s disappointment, our 1976 Napa Valley Chardonnay won again, this time beating out his 1976 Puligny-Montrachet, an extraordinary wine that was double the price of ours.
Forty years after the World Wine Olympics, we remain as proud as ever. At the time, we were a newly-established winery and new to the wine world, and we had nothing to lose. But our win put the wind in our sails we needed to keep making the kind of wine we believed in. Those historic tastings also prompted us to keep a library of old vintages, and to this day, when we taste those old bottlings, we are still amazed by their freshness and persistence. While they may not be as showy as they were in their youth, they are a testament to the pedigree of our terroir and the style of winemaking we’ve embraced since our early days.