In 1976, a blind tasting of French and California wines in Paris arranged by the late British merchant Steven Spurrier became a legendary turning point for California wine.
The tasting, which was named the Judgment of Paris by Time magazine journalist George Taber—the only reporter in attendance—involved 11 French wine experts, including Spurrier, ranking a group of famed French bottles against those little known from California. To the shock of the judges and the wine industry, the New World wines came out on top in rankings of 10 red and 10 white.
The top red was Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 1973, from Napa Valley, Calif.—which beat storied French producers Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970, Château Haut-Brion 1970, and Château Montrose 1970.
The top white was Chateau Montelena 1973, also from Napa Valley, which bested Meursault Charmes Roulot 1973 in second place and Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin in fifth. California’s Chalone Vineyard 1973 and Spring Mountain Vineyard 1973 came in second and third.
This past fall, Olivier Gergaud, an economics professor at Kedge Business School in France; Belgian economics professor Victor Ginsburgh; and Spanish economics professor Juan D. Moreno-Ternero published a new analysis of the tasting in the Journal of Wine Economics by looking at the performance of the red wines judged in the tasting since 1976. The authors relied on published wine ratings from 1968 (before the Judgment) through 2021, although the analysis focused on 1976 to 2017, years when there was a “reasonable set of expert ratings.”
Their conclusion was stunning in its own right: The Stag’s Leap 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was “overrated by the experts who tasted it in 1976, or 1973 was merely an outlier in this winery,” the journal reported.
The economists’ analysis was drawn from critic scores of the six California Cabernet Sauvignons and four French Bordeaux that were scored in the 1976 tasting and the scores of their peers in the five regions where the Judgment wines were produced. These included California, three “left bank” appellations from north of the city of Bordeaux and one from Graves, south of the city, also on the left bank.
What they found is Stag’s Leap scored better only once against all California wines, on average, during the 27 years when critic scores existed.
Four other wines—three French (Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, and Château Léoville Las Cases) and one California (Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Santa Cruz mountains)—did better than the average rate of their respective regions more than half the time.
The economists’ new analysis places Haut-Brion first, followed by Léoville Las Cases, Mouton-Rothschild, and Ridge. Stag’s Leap’s rank fell to eight.
“Based on ratings given by a large number of experts over 40 years after the Judgment, Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon was never competitive enough to beat French wines and some other Californian wines such as Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon and Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon,” the article said, adding rather forcefully, “We stress that our results, based on a large set of data and ratings, are arguably more solid than those from the (one-shot) Judgment of Paris in the year 1976.”
This latest analysis of the Paris tasting was not the first time Gergaud, Ginsburg, and Moreno-Ternero had taken a look at this influential event. In 2021, they used the Judgment of Paris among other ratings and rankings to devise a framework for creating consensus wine ratings. Their reason: Numerical wine scores make a huge difference in the price and investment potential of fine wine.
“A tiny difference in terms of ranking at the top of the distribution may have striking consequences on wine sales and investment returns,” they wrote in their June 2021 analysis in the Journal of Wine Economics, with the textbook-like title, “Wine Ratings: Seeking a Consensus among Tasters via Normalization, Approval, and Aggregation.”
Had one alternate method been used to rank the judges’ ratings of each wine in Paris in 1976, for instance, Stag’s Leap would have been tied for first with Château Montrose, as the authors detail in the 2021 article.
The authors decided not include results from subsequent re-enactments of the tastings on the 30th anniversary in 2006 nor another in 2016, as they didn’t replicate all the conditions of the first. Also, the “most interesting aspect” of the original tasting was Taber’s 2005 book about it, which contains a full account, “including specific details about the voting process,” Moreno-Ternero said in an email.
The original Paris tasting was also the subject of the 2008 movie Bottle Shock starring Alan Rickman and Chris Pine.
The market force of the Judgment remains evident today. As the article noted, a bottle of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 sold for a record price of US$12,300 at a Heritage Auctions sale in March.
Meanwhile, the current Liv-ex market price for a case of Château Haut-Brion Premier Cru Classe, Pessac-Leognan, 1973 is £4,888 (US$5,773).