Steven Spurrier made Napa wines famous with the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Now, a new tasting in his honor asks whether California is still on top.
Forty-five years ago, Steven Spurrier changed the world of wine forever. In 1976, the British wine merchant and cofounder of L’Académie du Vin wine school invited a few French experts to do a blind tasting that pitted California wines against fine Bordeaux and Burgundies. To the surprise of everyone involved, the judges gave top score to a cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and a chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, both in Napa Valley.
“I think it was a tasting whose time had come,” says Spurrier, who has since had a long career as a consultant and journalist and also started his own vineyard, Bride Valley, in the U.K.
On May 24, the wine and travel experiences company Cultured Vine will host a blind tasting event, the Judgment of Napa, at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone Napa Valley, as a tribute to Spurrier and his landmark tasting. (Other events will follow in Beverly Hills, Dallas, Palm Beach, and New York.)
In anticipation of the Napa event, Spurrier called Hemispheres to talk about his famous tasting and the state of the wine world today.
On the legacy of the Judgment of Paris:
“It put California wines on the map, and it was the first chink in the armor for French wines, but the most important thing it did, that single tasting, is create a template whereby little-known wines of quality could be compared to top wines of quality. It created a level playing field.”
On the changing wine world:
“I think you have to take a quote from The Leopard, that marvelous book written by Prince Lampedusa, who said, ‘Everything has to change so everything can remain the same.’ It’s a totally different world, and yet the bases are still there. The knowledge of wine has increased tremendously, the appreciation of wine, but still, the production of wine goes back 6,000 or 7,000 years. We’ve always had it with us. I think the dedication, particularly from the people who manage the vineyards, has improved unbelievably in the last 45 years. A lot of the château owners in Bordeaux lived in Paris. They didn’t bother to visit their châteaus except for vintage time, and now they’re hands-on. I think the wine trade, from top to bottom, is in very good shape.”
On his favorite current regions:
“I think in the New World, South Africa is the most creative region at the moment. They’ve reverted to chenin blanc, which is a great grape; they’re looking heavily into pinotage. And for the Old World, I choose Italy. The variety of Italian wines is quite extraordinary. It’s so completely regional. You have the lovely whites from the Friuli Venezia Giulia right up in the north, and then you have lovely whites from around Naples and in Sicily. And I’m personally very keen on sangiovese. My favorite red wine at the moment is Chianti Classico.”
On his Napa notoriety:
“The last time I was in Napa, I spent the night at Clos du Val, and the marketing director said, ‘Steven, you’ve made Napa famous—shouldn’t they do something for you? ’ And I said, ‘Well, they could name a street after me or something.’ And within six months, I get a photograph of something called Steven Spurrier Lane, and that is the lane leading from the Silverado Trail to the Clos du Val winery. It could not be more flattering. Steven Spurrier Lane—it’s exactly up my street.”
Judgment of Napa tickets start at $2,500
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