The 40th Anniversary of the Judgement of Paris

Events blog

Nancy Gilchrist MW

For those who can’t remember or simply weren’t born, the original Judgement of Paris pitted several Californian Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays against Bordeaux aristocracy such as Ch Margaux, Lafite and Mouton Rothschild and Burgundy elite including Puligny Montrachet and Meursault. Supposedly to avoid any preconceived prejudices from playing a role it was decided that the completely French panel should taste the wines blind. To their everlasting 'chagrin' they voted Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Montelena 1973 Chardonnay best of the selection. This event, hosted by Steven Spurrier, then owner of Les Caves de Madeleine in Paris, has been described as one of the most influential wine tastings ever held for it had a profoundly revolutionary and positive effect on the production and prestige of 'New World' wines around the world. And naturally it pushed California and Napa Valley in particular under the spotlight. Napa Valley becoming, in 1981, California's first AVA (American Viticultural Area).

For the 40th anniversary event, IMW brought together the current winemakers: Marcus Notaro of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Matt Crafton of Chateau Montelena. They each presented five vintages of their wines, giving inside information about the philosophy of their respective wineries including the changes they have undergone over the decades.

Marcus, who joined Stag's Leap in 2013 from a winemaking background in Washington State, served the 1983, 1993, 1998, 2008 and 2013 Stag's Leap Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – in that order, arguing that the older wines needed a fresher palate to be appreciated. The 1983 which showed evolved dark mulberry fruit and fine-grained tannins was indeed significantly more restrained than the '08 and '13 but still with notable freshness, lower alcohol (13.5%) and considerable persistence on the length. He said that in its youth it had resembled the famous 1973 in style quite closely; the grapes having been picked in ideal conditions in late September and into October, after a long, mild growing season. Notable throughout the five wines were the relatively fine-grained velvety tannins; a hallmark of wines from the Stag's Leap AVA.

Marcus was keen to underline the diversity of soils in the Napa Valley, nowhere more in evidence than the two iconic vineyards on Stag's Leap land: the Fay vineyard which is on heavy alluvial clay soil from the nearby creek and producing wines he said that were known for their red fruit flavours whereas the Stag's Leap Vineyard just to the north, mostly of volcanic soil derived from debris falling from the Stags Leap Pallisades above the property (the name being derived from a Wataro Indian legend where a nimble buck inspired the name) produced 'darker' wines with marked 'cocoa powder characteristics. Indeed, to assess and accentuate the various terroir on the Stag's Leap property, in his first vintage, Marcus introduced a change from the original approach and vinified and aged each vineyard plot separately in small French oak barrels. Certainly in the line-up that was tasted, the use of oak was most apparent in the 2013; some questioned whether it would be as fresh as the '83 in thirty years’ time.

The last two wines, the 2008 and 2013, seemed to show more pronounced alcohol (both 14.5%), although the 1998 was also 14.5% but carried it better. This led to some discussion about the role of climate change and global warming. Matt Crafton of Chateau Montelena, Calistoga in northern Napa, pointed out that one of the great bonuses of Napa Valley was the proximity of the Pacific Ocean which cooled the region and was the cause of the huge diurnal range of temperature in the valley. In his area of Calistoga, northern Napa, they have the highest range of diurnal temperature (28C) in the valley. Midsummer temperatures often ranging from over 36C at midday, cooling down to 8C at night. As a result, teams of pickers are sent out to gather the grapes under the light of arc lamps which can give the vineyards a rather alien appearance.

The huge disparity in rainfall between the two AVAs was noted: Calistoga receiving up to 60 inches (150cms) of rainfall per year which is precisely double that of Stags Leap which is partly influenced by the San Francisco Bay fog. Irrigation is clearly important, carefully monitored and delivered by overhead drip which has the added bonus of providing a measure of potential frost protection. This and vine spacing are two of the most important innovations since the 1970s in the days of Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, owners of Stag's Leap and Chateau Montelena respectively. Vines are now planted almost twice as densely resulting in lower yields per vine and more concentration in the fruit. Yields for Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa are almost half the average in the rest of California. With over 33 distinct soil profiles throughout Napa Valley, Marcus also commented that careful rootstock selection was key to successful grape cultivation. The original AXR1 planted in the '70s having become overly prone to phylloxera has now been largely replaced by 110R for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Matt explained how Chateau Montelena, although it had made its name with the Chardonnay, was actually in area more suited to red wine production (the Chardonnay had indeed only been planted originally as a bread-and -butter grape but clearly no one was complaining that it had brought in the brioche lifestyle). The AVA gained formal recognition as recently as 2010 and its volcanic soil is one of its distinguishing features. Of the five wines he presented the first three were the 2001, 2009 and 2013 Chardonnays followed by 2002 and 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon and as a range there was a notable agility and freshness of acidity; lengths in general were well-sustained, especially on the 2001 Chardonnay which suggested it still had years of enjoyable drinking in it. The Cabernets were fresh and well-balanced. Barrel-aging for the Chardonnays was kept to under a year, whiles the Cabernets received around 18 months, always in French oak. As with Stag's Leap, some experiments had been made to cultivate natural winery yeasts but cultured yeasts were generally used.

Sustainability is a key watchword for the Chateau Montelena's approach, as indeed it is throughout the Napa Valley. They installed a solar array in 2008 shortly after Matt first joined. He then oversaw their sustainability program which resulted in earning all the green credentials on offer in Napa Valley, from fish friendly farming to minimal use of chemicals in vineyard and winery.

Both winemakers were keen to recognise the huge debt their wineries owe to the original 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, which is why they were, effectively, on a world tour that had previously seen them present their wines in Shanghai and Hong Kong as well as on East and West coasts of America before finishing in London. Christie's seemed a particularly suitable venue for the event, being the place where Steven Spurrier had created yet another notable feature of the wine world by founding Christie's Wine Education with Michael Broadbent MW in 1982.