February 21, 2012
The story of “The Judgment of Paris” has hit the big screen. Long the provenance of wine geeks, this is the tale of Steven Spurrier, and energetic British citizen whose training took place at Christopher & Company, England’s oldest wine merchant. By 1970, he had opened his own shop in Paris. Les Caves de la Madeleine quickly gained recognition as a first-rate store, run by the energetic, quixotic Francophile.
In 1976, perhaps in part as a publicity stunt, and in confluence with America’s 200th birthday, Spurrier decided that a blind tasting of French and California wines–to show off the merits of each–would be a fun idea. The French obviously agreed. It would be yet another medium in which to express the superiority of French wines, and an especially practical way to humiliate those California upstarts.
Well, the rest is history, and a tidal wave of folklore has grown from it. Utilizing a panel of nine distinguished French judges, the result was a Napa Valley Cabernet besting famous Bordeaux reds. A Napa Chardonnay did the same compared to venerable Burgundy offerings. No manner of bluster or post-tasting apologies could dim the raw truth: the panel not only found many California wines superior, but even mistook many of these offerings as French. “Ah, back to France!” exclaimed judge Raymond Oliver as he swirled and sipped a Napa Chardonnay. “This is definitely California, it has no nose,” spouted another judge, as he quaffed a Batard-Monrachet. (I had a reality check when I read the original Time magazine article written shortly after the tasting: “The U.S. winners are little known to wine lovers, and rather expensive ($6+).” Oh, boy! Life *and* prices were awfully good in the ’70s.)
Yet I never imagined that this event, important as it was for California’s emerging credibility, could be fodder for a feature length film. A documentary? Surely. But this tale, adored by industry insiders worldwide, is now a movie called “Bottle Shock”, and it makes one wonder what Hollywood will do to spice it up.
A blind wine tasting is about as romantic and exciting to watch as a Mah Jong tournament. Look! Here are folks sniffing, drinking, and spitting. (Special effects and slow motion might enhance the expectoration.) Sex? I can imagine a bit of hanky panky amid the dark, humid aging barrels, or a post-contest romantic interlude at the Place de l’Opera. Plus, I’ve seen the movie’s trailer, which features couples kissing amid the vines and a pretty young thing taking off her T-shirt in an attempt to flag a passing car. (Shades of Claudette Colbert’s leg in “It Happened One Night”.) But the vehicle turns out to be a police car. Oops, my bad.
“Bottle Shock” centers on the Barrett family and their estate, Chateau Montelena, a great California cult winery that was having a hard time staying afloat in the mid-70s. The Judgement of Paris actually helped them turn their business around. And thank goodness! It was their Chardonnay that won big in Paris and, as a wine lover with three bottles of their now even more celebrated Cabernet in my own cellar, I’m a beneficiary. Real life arguments persist as to who was really responsible for Montelena’s ’76 success: the winery owners or radical winemaker Mike Grgich? This remains a sore point to this very day.
Prominent actors in the film include Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, and Rachael Taylor, with former “Law and Order” cop Dennis Farina spouting home-grown wine aphorisms (“I detect bacon fat laced with honey melon”). Danny DeVito plays a cameo as Grgich, and Grgich himself appears in several scenes at the chateau. The real Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena, appears in the film as a vineyard owner who pours a wine sample for Rickman.
I’m hoping against hope that this will not be a jingoistic film where America conquers France. It’s fair to ask why the French wine coterie ever agreed to such an event. Chutzpah and history, I imagine, but there remains a lesson that French winemakers know, and that American winemakers should keep on the front burner. During the past 30 years, America’s explosive emergence among the new world order of great winemaking is a dynamic story. But, last time I checked, the wines that garner bids of thousands of dollars a bottle at auction are still French. They remain the gold standard, like it or not, that they’ve always been. Plus ça change……