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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Judgment Day: Part Deux




What the 2006 showdown between California and France really proves:Too much information.
by Linda Murphy

That's what had to be processed after last week's re-enactment of "The Judgment of Paris," the 1976 tasting at which a Napa Valley Chardonnay and a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon shockingly outpointed their French counterparts and proved that California could make wine as good as any region in the world.

On May 24, simultaneous tastings were held in London and Napa to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that groundbreaking Paris event. In yet another surprise, an international group of wine experts gave California a repeat victory, awarding its wines first through fifth place among the 10 Cabernet Sauvignons aged 30 years or more from California and Bordeaux.

The American blitz, led by the first-place 1971 Ridge Monte Bello California Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains, was "incomprehensible," Frenchman Michel Dovaz told fellow London panelist Jancis Robinson, as reported on Robinson's Web site, jancisrobinson.com.

Bordeaux, after all, is the tortoise to California's hare, its red wines having the reputation for developing slowly and showing their complete personalities only after 10 years or more in the bottle. California's Cabernet Sauvignons, the Bordelais said, were quick to reward and fast to fade -- showy and fruit-driven when young, yet growing tired with time.

Certainly, the event on May 24 was a triumph for California wine and should be celebrated. It also begs for context, for like a fine wine with multiple layers of complexity, last week's tastings raised as many issues as they resolved. Here's the back story:

Winiarski in the mix: While Ridge Vineyards' Paul Draper received most of the kudos for his Cabernet's two wins last week -- it was also the top-scoring wine in the tasting of young California Cabernet Sauvignon -- the accomplishments of Warren Winiarski must be recognized. His 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon won "The Judgment of Paris" in 1976, besting first-growth producers Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion, and he beat them again last week, finishing second to Ridge.

It is remarkable that Winiarski's first vintage was 1973 and that such a young vineyard produced a wine that was impressive on release and after 30 years.

Since day one, Winiarski has sought less ripeness and thus moderate alcohol levels in his wines. He wants firm natural acidity to help the wine age. He strives for balance and elegance over power and weight. He wants the aroma, flavor and texture nuances provided by his vineyard to translate to the glass. He accepts tight tannins in his young wines, knowing those tannins will soften and protect the wine from the ravages of time.

Winiarski credits his success to "fire and ice" -- the ripe, luxurious fruit character from the warmer parts of his vineyard in the Stags Leap District and the firm tannins and acid backbone from the cooler sections. When the lots from specific parts of the vineyard are combined, they become a wine built for drinking now and for the ages.

The rules change: In conjunction with the re-enactment tasting of the older Cabernet Sauvignons (the Chardonnays and white Burgundies from 1976 were not judged last week because most went over the hill years ago), the 18 panelists also tasted current-release Cabernets and Chardonnays from California and France -- but not side by side. California Cabs were judged only against themselves, Bordeaux against Bordeaux. Thus, there were no "winners" proclaimed in the 2006 California versus France battle of young wines. So much for a re- enactment tasting in 2036.

Organizers Steven Spurrier in London and Patricia Gastaud- Gallagher at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, who also staged the 1976 Paris tasting, were under pressure from vintners on both sides of the Atlantic to not conduct direct comparisons of the newer California and French wines. Although the 12 Cabernet Sauvignons from California and Bordeaux were served to panelists all at one time, it was made clear which six were from the Golden State and which were from France, and judges were instructed to score the two groups separately.

To ensure that they would have some measure of cooperation from the vintners in providing wines, Spurrier and Gastaud-Gallagher decided to taste like with like, and termed the tastings a celebration rather than a competition.

Some vintners chickened out, knowing the highly visible tastings would receive tremendous publicity. What if one's $200 Cabernet Sauvignon were to lose? Or worse for Bordeaux, what if California repeated its 1976 success?

"I would have preferred that all the younger wines be tasted blind together," says Peter Marks, wine director at Copia and a panelist last week. "I think it would have been interesting to see the results from the standpoint of a European versus California palate."

In the formal tastings on May 24, there were strikingly obvious differences in the Cabernets of California and those of Bordeaux. Although some Bordeaux reds are "bigger" and riper than they were three decades ago, most French producers have stayed the course, making wines with moderate alcohol levels and allowing a bit of the herbaceousness that adds complexity to Cabernet Sauvignon to remain while avoiding an unripe green character

"Certainly both California and France push for more ripeness and softer tannins, but some of the California producers have pushed this to the limit," Marks says. "In general, the younger French wines we tasted were riper and softer than wines of the past (partly due to the 2002 vintage for the whites and 2000 for the reds that we tasted), but they still maintained the classic French structure, with a good backbone of acid and tannin that I think will allow them to hold up longer in the bottle than many of the current California wines.

"For that reason, I think it would have been easy for most of the knowledgeable judges to tell apart the California and French wines had they been tasted together."

Robinson, a Chronicle contributor, said, "I think the Bordelais shot themselves in the foot by not allowing their wines to be rated alongside the young California Cabernets. Certainly the London panel thought they were generally better, and better made, wines.

"I think the re-enactment tasting certainly proved that in the early 1970s California was making Cabernets of great quality with the capacity to age for more than 30 years -- which is not something that has so far been internationally acknowledged. It also showed how very different in style in most cases the wines of Bordeaux and California were then from those being made today.

"Personally, I feel that Bordeaux is making much better wines today, at the top Left Bank level, than it was in 1970, but I am not so convinced about the super-ripe, heavily oaked direction that so many California winemakers have taken."

The California palate: Three days after the tastings in Napa and London, Marks hosted an unofficial blind tasting for 70 Copia members, vintners and consumers, who judged the current-release white and red wines from California and France together, without knowing the provenance of each.

Not surprisingly, California Cabernet Sauvignons swept the first four places -- 2001 Shafer Hillside Select Stags Leap District, 2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley, 2001 Staglin Family Vineyard Rutherford and 2000 Ridge Monte Bello, in order. First-growth Chateau Margaux, one of the finest and most expensive wines in the world ($600 per bottle), was the highest-scoring Bordeaux, in fifth.

California Chardonnays also took the top four spots -- 2002 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Carneros, 2004 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Carneros, 2002 Talley Rosemary's Vineyard Arroyo Grande and 2003 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley.

These results make the point that wine drinkers like the wines they know best, the ones they drink often, the ones made from grapes grown near them, the wines that are most available to them.

In Northern California, that generally means ripe and lush, with powerful fruit flavors and significant alcohol levels. In Bordeaux, these same wines likely would have bombed, for the Bordelais simply don't drink this style of wine.

Some no-shows: Marks confirmed that some top California producers declined to provide wines for the tastings, due to minuscule production and wines that are sold out. Kistler Vineyards, a top-flight Sonoma County producer of Chardonnay, was one such winery that Marks said "truly didn't have any wine to offer."

It's also apparent that some unidentified Napa Valley "cult," or highly sought-after wines, chose not to submit wines under any case.

"I suspect some of the wineries felt they had little to gain and much to lose in a blind tasting," Marks said. "I should point out that all of the wineries that declined to participate did so before the format was changed to the semi-blind tasting."

While all the California vintners whose wines were tasted in Paris supplied those same wines again for the 2006 tasting, the Bordelais refused. Spurrier and Gastaud-Gallagher either purchased the Bordeaux wines or accepted donations from collectors in order to replicate the Paris event.

On the other hand, the 1969 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was the oldest in the tasting, and the winery's owners knew the wine was well past its prime. Admirably, they supplied it anyway, and while the 1969 Freemark Abbey finished last on the score cards, it remains a drinkable wine, but drink it now.

The French also would not submit current-release wines, so those were purchased.

"I don't honestly think that you can stop people doing these comparative tastings," Robinson says. "If you don't cooperate, they will do them anyway. And while you can argue that it is like comparing apples with oranges, it is not always 100 percent evident which is the apple and which the orange -- especially as the wines age."

A taste for older wines: As Santa Rosa wine writer Dan Berger, one of the nine judges at the Copia tasting, points out, all 18 official tasters of the re-enactment reds have experience tasting older wines -- something the typical wine lover doesn't have because he/she usually buys current releases and drinks them within a few years of purchase.

The best old red wines typically have characteristics embraced by those who understand them, with floral, spicy aromas and delicate flavors of dried fruit and baking spice. Wine drinkers expecting fresh fruit and textural richness will likely be disappointed in wines aged for 20 or 30 years.

Taber told the world: If it weren't for Time magazine Paris correspondent George M. Taber's personal interest in wine, the results of the 1976 tasting likely never would have been communicated to the world, and last week's re-enactment would not have happened.

Although Spurrier and Gastaud-Gallagher invited several members of the press to their Paris tasting, Taber was the only one to show up, hopeful to taste some wines, which seemed "like a perfectly wonderful way to spend an otherwise slow afternoon," he writes in his book, "Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine" (Scribner, 327 pages, $26).

With only Taber as a media presence, the Paris tasters were quite gabby, according to Gastaud-Gallagher, who recalled the verbal confidence one French taster expressed in proclaiming that a California Chardonnay was white Burgundy, and vice versa. He was wrong.

"This tasting was very, very, very serious and there was no chatting," Gallagher said after the Napa judges finished their notes. "In 1976, there was chatting. If not, George wouldn't have had a story. Without George, we would not be here."

Taber's June 7, 1976, Time story -- buried on page 58, next to a tire ad -- had a headline that would reverberate for 30 years, and likely more: "Judgment of Paris."

The last sentence of the first paragraph stated, "Last week in Paris, at a formal wine tasting organized by Steven Spurrier, the unthinkable happened: California defeated all Gaul."

Fairly judged: Spurrier and Gastaud-Gallagher, staged the 1976 event to celebrate the American Bicentennial and gain publicity for their Caves de la Madeleine wine shop and l'Academie du Vin school. Why the preponderance of California wines?

Because no one, Spurrier said at the time, thought the French could lose. So while Bordeaux had just four representatives in last week's re-enactment tasting, the fact that Mouton Rothschild couldn't crack the top five is telling, no matter how many Bordeaux were entered.

The reaction of the London judges was "surprise," Robinson says. "And don't forget we included two Frenchmen! I don't honestly know whether my fellow tasters correctly identified each wine's origin, but I know that my favorite wine was the Ridge and I did think it was from California, but I was less sure about where the Stag's Leap, my second-favorite wine, came from."

The deck was not stacked in favor of California, with just six of the 18 judges from the Golden State. The rest were from France and the United Kingdom.

Draper's delight: Draper, winemaker and CEO of Cupertino's Ridge Vineyards & Winery, whose wine placed fifth in 1976, said he was honored to have his wine place first last week. He has been making an elegant and balanced Cabernet Sauvignon from the Monte Bello Vineyard for 40 years, thanking the cool Santa Cruz Mountains climate, poor soils and the right rootstock for producing grapes with full flavors at lower alcohol levels.

"I've always preferred that style," Draper says. "The wine is about the place, balance, its compatibility with food, and not dominating the scene."

On Decanter.com, Spurrier says Draper's 1971 Cabernet Sauvignon "is a Latour-style wine. It's very Bordeaux."

Hyde pride: While Draper and Ridge were the biggest "winners," it wasn't a bad week for Larry Hyde of Hyde Vineyard in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. His grapes produced the 2002 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay and the Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnays, which scored well with the official panelists and the Copia consumer tasters.

Bigger not always better: Nowadays, power trumps finesse in wine competitions and on the palates of influential wine critics. Consumers may not read their reviews, but believe me, the distributors and retailers who sell wine certainly do, and they use 90-plus-point scores to sell to consumers.

Why take the time to hand-sell an understated, elegant wine with a score of 88 when a 92, which may be more beast than beauty, sell 10 times as fast?

Drink what you like: If wines were all made under similar climatic and soil conditions, if vintages were all the same, if winemakers worked with recipes and not their instincts, if all wines tasted the same and if superiority could be claimed by only one wine region, then consumers would have little choice and variety, and most winemakers, retailers, sommeliers and yes, wine writers, wouldn't have jobs.

One of my favorite wines is the Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, one of the few white wines that gets better with time.

The 2002 Mount Eden finished sixth out of six wines in the formal tasting last week, and eighth out of 12 in the public tasting at Copia.

Good. That leaves more for me. Vive la difference.
California

1 1971 Ridge Monte Bello California

2 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley

3 (tie) 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards Napa Valley, 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha's Vineyard Napa Valley

5 1972 Clos du Val Napa Valley

France

6 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac

7 1970 Chateau Montrose Saint-Estephe

8 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognan

9 1971 Chateau Leovillelas-Cases Saint-Julien

10 1969 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley
California vs. France, then and now

The red wine tastings pitted some of California's best Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines against some of the best wines from France's Bordeaux region. Here are the results:

1976 in Paris

1. 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley

2. 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac

3. 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognan

4. 1970 Chateau Montrose Saint-Estephe

5. 1971 Ridge Monte Bello California

6. 1971 Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases Saint-Julien

7. 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards Napa Valley

8. 1972 Clos du Val Napa Valley

9. 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha's Vineyard Napa Valley

10. 1969 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley

2006 in Napa and London (combined scores from the two tastings)

1. 1971 Ridge Monte Bello California

2. 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley

3. Tie, 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha's Vineyard Napa Valley and 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards Napa Valley

5. 1972 Clos du Val Napa Valley

6. 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac

7. 1970 Chateau Montrose Saint-Estephe

8. 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognan

9. 1971 Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases Saint-Julien

10. 1969 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley
Judging the current releases

Unlike the 1976 Paris re-enactment tasting, the California wines currently in the market were not judged against their French counterparts. Here are results from the separate tastings of these wines.

California Cabernet Sauvignon

1. 2000 Ridge Monte Bello California ($120)

2. 2001 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Cask 23 ($160)

3. 2001 Staglin Family Vineyard Rutherford ($170)

4. Tie, 2001 Shafer Hillside Select Stags Leap District ($175) and 2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley ($175)

6. 2000 Clos du Val Reserve Napa Valley ($95)

Red Bordeaux

1. 2000 Chateau Margaux ($600)

2. 2000 Chateau Rauzan-Segla Margaux ($95)

3. 2000 Chateau Montrose Saint-Estephe ($150)

4. 2000 Chateau Latour Pauillac ($600)

5. 2001 Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases Saint-Julien ($90)

6. 2000 Chateau Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognan ($600)

California Chardonnay

1. 2002 Talley Rosemary's Vineyard Arroyo Grande ($45)

2. 2002 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Carneros ($56)

3. 2004 Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Carneros ($50)

4. 2003 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley ($38)

5. 2003 Peter Michael Point Rouge Sonoma County ($175)

6. 2002 Mount Eden Vineyards Santa Cruz Mountains ($35)

White Burgundy

1. 2002 Domaine Leflaive Les Pucelles Puligny-Montrachet ($160)

2. 2002 Domaine Drouhin Clos des Mouches Beaune ($70)

3. 2002 Louis Jadot Les Caillerets Chassagne-Montrachet ($65)

4. 2002 Domaine Roulot Charmes Meursault ($250)

5. 2002 Louis Latour Batard-Montrachet ($70)

6. 2003 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne ($95)
How the wines taste

Chronicle Wine Editor Linda Murphy was not among the nine official judges at the re-enactment of the 1976 Paris tasting in Napa on May 24, but she was one of eight media guests who tasted the 10 older Cabernet Sauvignons from California and Bordeaux. Here are her personal rankings and tasting notes.

1. 1971 Ridge Monte Bello California Lovely dark garnet color with just a hint of brown at the rim. Earth, forest floor and truffle aromas and still-fresh blueberry, black raspberry and citrus palate. Good body, tingly acidity and a very long finish -- the most complex of the group. Has another five years, perhaps.

2. 1972 Clos du Val Napa Valley Deep, dark ruby color with slight browning. Still a good drink, with vivid aromatics, dried black/red fruit palate plus licorice, forest floor and toast. Firm acidity and fine balance. Drink in next two to three years.

3. 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Napa Valley Ruby color with slight brick edge. Fresh-tasting black cherry and red berry, plus complex spice, leather and beef bouillon notes. Balanced; slightly creamy texture. Should be fine for five more years.

4. 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Pauillac Pretty ruby color with slight brick rim. Has laudable richness in its black cherry fruit, cassis and vanilla. Pert acidity, with slightly drying tannins. Great balance. Drink soon before the tannins take over.

5. 1971 Mayacamas Vineyards Napa Valley The darkest of the group, with a solid garnet color. Tart raspberry entry warms to riper black cherry plus leather, licorice and tobacco. A hint of citrus peel adds interest.

6. 1970 Chateau Montrose Saint-Estephe Light ruby with orange rim. Mature yet still bright, thanks to citruslike acidity. Slightly gritty and firmly tannic, it might reward another five years of cellaring.

7. 1970 Heitz Wine Cellars Martha's Vineyard Napa Valley Ruby color with brick edges. Has the telltale mint character of the vineyard, with restrained black currant and cherry fruit. Lean and fading in fruit and mouthfeel.

8. 1971 Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases Saint-Julien Pale ruby color. Shy lavender, strawberry nose turns to creosote and dried flowers. Black cherry fruit and anise remain, but astringency and dusty tannins prevail.

9. 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion Pessac-Leognan Ruby color with obvious brown rim. Smells of earth, cement dust and leather, with a dull palate that still has some black cherry and cedar character. Puckery tannins. Drink now.

10. 1969 Freemark Abbey Napa Valley Dark brick with sediment; well past its prime and losing its fruit, with tar, leather and cinnamon remaining. Thin in texture and high in acidity. An interesting example of a 37-year-old wine, the oldest in the flight.

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