The bottle shock that shook the world of wine

An event that shook an industry and a country took place on May 24th, 1976. A British wine merchant organized a blind tasting in Paris between French and California wines. The judges were nine top French connoisseurs, plus the Englishman and an American. The California wines came out ahead of their French counterparts in every category, stunning the French, and even the English wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, who had hitherto only sold French wines.

For his efforts, Spurrier was banned by the French from their prestigious wine-tasting tour for a year. The tasting was initially ignored by the French press, but three months after it, Le Figaro published a sneering article to mock it, as did Le Monde after a further three months. But the story reverberated internationally, hugely boosting the developing New World wineries, and damaging the reputation of the French ones. The tasting became known as “The Judgement of Paris,” in a nod to Greek mythology.

There were follow-up tastings ten years later by the French Culinary Institute and the Wine Spectator. The American wines outscored the French in both. Spurrier organized am anniversary tasting 30 years after the 1976 one, with a similar result. As the Times reported, "Despite the French tasters, many of whom had taken part in the original tasting, 'expecting the downfall' of the American vineyards, they had to admit that the harmony of the Californian cabernets had beaten them again.”

The French has simply assumed that only France could produce wines of the finest quality, and had rested on their laurels as the New World vintners crept up and overtook them. Wine connoisseurs used to prattle snobbily about the “terroir” and the “minerality,” while the New World producers mastered the ability to produce consistently reliable quality wines. What in France had been an industry suffused in mystique became in the New World an industry reliant on technique.

It changed British habits. Wine drinkers, of which there were not many, had graduated from appallingly sweet fortified ‘port’ and ‘sherry’ types to appallingly sweet German wines with names like Blue Nun and Black Tower. Now they came increasingly to appreciate the drier varieties from the new producers, and began to order wines not by their vineyard, but by their country and grape type.

It typifies the ability of markets to punish backsliders. A producer who relies on their past, feeling comfortable in an established position, is always at risk from upstart newcomers who innovate and offer the public new things that resonate with them. The brands that dominate in one period often themselves become period pieces as new ones come to supplant them. It is one of the virtues of markets that they respond to changing public tastes. Monopolies, be they state or private, do not allow the public to shop elsewhere for better products and services, and are thus not agents of improvement. On the contrary, with captive consumers they will tend to deteriorate as producers capture them to serve their own interests instead of those of their customers. Modern day advocates of nationalization should take note of that.