Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Judgment of Paris

The Friends of the Library began their 5th season of the Reel Monday film series last night. They choose from films that played the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. The season proper begins in January, but they've added two films this fall. When Did You Last See Your Father? will be shown on November 24th, while Bottle Shock was shown last night.
Bottle Shock is the fictionalized story of the infamous "Judgment of Paris" wine tasting in 1976, where California wines from Napa Valley bested storied French wines in a blind tasting. This incident was the tipping point for New World wines, with the wine world realizing that France did not hold a monopoly on good wine. The US victory would have been a nothing event except that George Taber, a US journalist, happened to be at the tasting. Taber wrote a two paragraph article for Time Magazine and soon enough the event had become mythic and epic.

Taber published a full-length book on the tasting in 2005: Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. The book describes the tasting of course, but also situates it in the context of the times - what was happening in California leading up to the event in particular. The importance of Robert Mondavi is mentioned (pick up The House of Mondavi for a full-length look, also on CD audiobook). Mondavi wrote the foreword for the book. But Taber also writes about the winemakers who made the victorious wines: Warren Winiarski and Mike Grgich. Winiarski owned Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, whose 1973 cabernet sauvignon was the top red wine. Grgich was the winemaker for Chateau Montelena, whose 1973 chardonnay was the top white wine.

The effects of the Paris tasting are shown in the growth of wineries all over the globe. And back in California too - in 2007 Stag's Leap was sold to a Washington State winery for $186 million, while Chateau Montelena was sold, ironically, to a French winery for an "undisclosed sum". Mike Grgich left Chateau Montelena soon after the tasting and started his own winery, Grgich Hills Estate, where he continues to make the world's best chardonnays.

The film, Bottle Shock has has pretty good reviews, some good, some not so much. It is definitely worth a watch for wine buffs. Besides Sideways and the documentary Mondovino, there isn't a whole bunch of great wine films out there. George Taber and the Brit wine shop owner who organized the tasting, Steve Spurrier have spoken out against factual liberties taken in Bottle Shock. In particular they note that the Mike Grgich is not mentioned in the film. Both Taber and Spurrier are involved in the production of a rival film based on the event.


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