A Vintage Victory for California

The French may have their fries, even their toast, but it appears they're slowly losing their position as the front-runner in wine.

Thirty years ago, California's Napa Valley cabernets and chardonnays went head-to-head with France's Bordeauxs and white Burgundies in a blind, comparative taste test in Paris.

Wine lovers worldwide, and especially stateside, were stunned when the panel of nine French wine experts deemed California wines the best. A 1973 Stag's Leap cabernet sauvignon was named the top red, and a Chateau Montelena chardonnay of the same year was named the top white.

"It was an absolutely pivotal moment for California wineries," said Leslie Sbrocco, a wine columnist. "It put California wines on the map."

California's Napa Valley gained instant recognition and respect as an emerging wine-producing powerhouse. To this day, May 24, 1976, is considered a milestone in the American wine industry.

But the French were quick to dismiss the results, vowing that California's wines would never age.

After maturing for three decades, California wineries got a second chance to prove themselves at the re-enactment of the "Judgment of Paris."

History has a way of repeating itself.

California's wines trumped the French wines once more.

"We've certainly been able to dispel the myth that California wines don't age," said Peter Marks, director of wine at COPIA, a Napa Valley wine and arts center, which hosted one of the wine-tasting panels.

A second panel was simultaneously conducted at Berry Bros. & Rudd in London, one of the United Kingdom's oldest wine and spirit merchants.

All 10 wines from the 1976 Paris event were sampled and re-evaluated by nine judges in a blind taste test. Scores were tallied, and when the cross-continental results were combined -- California once again emerged victorious.

"This is a confirmation of how strong California wine is," said Sbrocco.

Native Napa Valley wines claimed the top five of 10 spots. A 1971 Ridge Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains was crowned first-place finisher. In second place, the 1973 Stag's Leap cabernet sauvignon that had taken the top prize 30 years before.

Sbrocco, who has recently tasted a 1976 Stag's Leap cabernet sauvignon, was not at all surprised to see how well the California wines fared.

"They are remarkably well-preserved," Sbrocco said. "They're just magnificent."

There were a few changes in the wine-tasting format this time around. All the original red wines were included in the rematch, but none of the original chardonnays, which are viewed as less age-worthy, were featured. Newer vintages, both red and white, were also sampled. None of these modern wines were included in the blind-tasting but were instead identified by country.

A more notable difference in the French-American face-off, however, was the sense of camaraderie and respect that characterized the anniversary event.

"There's enough friction and competition in the rest of the world. But in this case, wine has brought together people from different sides of the Atlantic," said Marks.

Sbrocco agreed. "If 1976 was David slaying Goliath, then the rematch was more like two Goliath's sitting down for a cocktail," he said.

While California wineries certainly have reason to celebrate, Sbrocco doesn't believe the French wine industry has too much to worry about.

"If you already buy French Bordeaux, you'll buy Bordeaux regardless of yesterday's results," Sbrocco said, noting that the 2005 Bordeaux vintage has already received rave reviews from most wine critics.

"As a Californian, it puts a smile on my face, but it won't spike sales for either country," Sbrocco concluded.

Both Sbrocco and Marks believe California has a bright future as a world-class wine producer.

"Wine is a living, wonderful thing. It's amazing that it can be appreciated either young or old," Marks said, adding, "California has done very well."

The 30th anniversary celebration will continue on into the weekend. This Saturday, COPIA is hosting another wine-tasting event, this one open to the public.

The event has already sold out. All 70 attendees will have the opportunity to sip wine from the May 24 tasting. None of the wines from the original 1976 event will be available, but the modern reds and whites from both countries will be featured. Saturday's event will also be staged as a blind tasting, and the results will be revealed at a panel discussion following the tasting.

Patricia Gallagher, who helped organize the 1976 competition, will moderate the panel, which will include the anniversary event's winner, Paul Draper, and past winner, Warren Winiarski. Also scheduled to participate is George Taber, a writer for Time magazine, who was at the 1976 tasting in Paris and has since written a book about the historic event.