Reliving the Wine Tasting That Changed Everything

State flags of the United States of America and FranceI was a senior in high school during America’s Bicentennial year. I had no idea that on the other side of the pond, an event was taking place that would change the perception of California wine forever.

The event was known as the “Paris Tasting.” It pitted California wines against French wines in a blind tasting, with French wine experts serving as the judges. In Vegas, that would be called stacking the deck. And yet, somehow, some way, the California wines emerged victorious.

In the 40 years since, Napa Valley wines have come to command lofty prices similar to those of French Bordeaux, and vineyard plantings have skyrocketed up and down the state. As an American “wine culture” was created, bold, innovative pioneers in other states have followed suit. Today, every state is home to at least one winery, including Alaska and countless others where the winters are beyond harsh.

Warren Winiarski is the vintner who crafted the Cabernet Sauvignon that beat out its French counterparts in 1976, and now he is helping to commemorate that event. On May 17, he is sponsoring the Smithsonian’s Judgment of Paris 40th Anniversary Dinner at the National Museum of American History.

Here’s more on that dinner from a media release…

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The dinner will bring together individuals who organized and attended the 1976 tasting in Paris, the winemakers who made the winning vintages, and individuals who are carrying on the legacy of fine winemaking in America.

“As the grandson of immigrants, I am honored to be a part of the most American of all museums,” says Winiarski. “The National Museum of American History captures what it is to be American, from history and science to artifacts and culture. That a bottle of wine I made is part of the museum’s collection is the highest of honors. I am delighted to support their work in preserving and celebrating American history.”

In May of 1976, Steven Spurrier invited journalist George Taber to observe as some of the top wine experts in France tasted through some of the best red wines of Bordeaux and California at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris. And when Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon came out on top, Taber wrote an article that was published in Time magazine, first to national and then international attention.

A bottle of Winiarski’s award-winning 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon wine is now on display in the museum’s “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000” exhibition. In its November 2013 issue, Smithsonian magazine included this bottle as one of the “101 Objects That Made America.” Other items chosen for this historic list included Neil Armstrong’s space suit, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis, and Lewis and Clark’s compass.

The Judgment of Paris, as it came to be known, forever established the Napa Valley on the world stage, and inspired the hopes and dreams of an entire generation of California winemakers.

With a bottle of his wine in the permanent collections of the National Museum of American History, and his name and face among the legendary leaders in the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame, Winiarski has every right to be proud of his accomplishments. But that idea brings a smile to Winiarski.

“You know, I don’t think any of us in that Hall of Fame were ever motivated by the thought that we were going to win some kind of honor or recognition. We were just passionate about wine on its own terms. We were trying to make beautiful and great wine, and in love with that idea, we gave it our lives.”

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