Reviewed by Orley Ashenfelter
George Taber has written much more than a book about a wine tasting. Sure, the Judgment of Paris must be the most famous organized wine tasting of all time. And sure, California cabernet and chardonnay wines topped fine French products on French soil with French judges at a time when such an outcome (1976) was considered impossible by everyone- not just the French!
But Taber's book is more than the story of a wine tasting. In the same way that Sea Biscuit is more than a story about a horse race and The Jackie Robinson Story is more than a story about baseball, Judgment of Paris is the story of the development of the California wine industry and of the personalities who made it happen. If ever a story about wine could rise above the ubiquitous "cooking, wine, and spirits" category and find a wider public, this is it.
As the only journalist present for this historic event, Taber, a long time business reporter who was then at Time magazine, is uniquely situated to set the record straight. Taber tells his story by following the history of the two men who made the winning American wines: Mike Grgich, then winemaker at Chateau Montelena, who produced the chardonnay, and Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, who produced the cabernet. Both these men have wonderful, classic American life stories of movement from nothing to something. Mike Grgich (born in Croatia 82 years ago as Miljenko Grgic›) arrived in the Napa Valley on a Greyhound bus in the summer of 1958 via Canada, where he had immigrated in the hopes of a better life (and with $32 sewn into a shoe!) Warren Winiarski, formerly a lecturer at the University of Chicago in their (now defunct) Great Books program, followed Route 66 to California with his wife and two young children with the same goal. Both men certainly had some familiarity with the products they were about to produce, but this was a far cry from what you can learn in a university today in Davis, Bordeaux, or Roseworthy (the famous enology program in Australia).
We learn a lot about the paths these men take and how they ended up being in the right place at the right time. Some of the common features of their good fortune seem almost eerie. Though Robert Mondavi gets a whole chapter devoted to him, the name that crops up over and over is J. Leland (Lee) Stewart. Amazingly, both Grgich's and Winiarski's first jobs in Napa were as assistants to Stewart. Connected to the Stanford family, Stewart's Souverain Vineyard provided some of the finest early examples of Napa cabernet sauvignon. (I have recently tasted Souverain cabernets from the 1960's that remain delicious.) These early days in the Napa Valley were days of cooperation, conviviality, and a lot of learning by doing.
The research behind Taber's writing is truly staggering. Taber tracks down the story behind the winemakers of all the wines in the competition, both American and French. We learn that the Veedercrest Chardonnay in the competition was made by Al Baxter, a bohemian spirit if ever there was one, who was a Professor of Philosophy at Berkeley and the author of the mystery novel Stay Me with Flagons! (The wine didn't do so well, however, ranking 9th out of 10.)
There is a big payoff to Taber's research, and especially to his felicitous writing style. We see it best in Chapter 19, where he tells the story of the "Stunning Upset." Taber does two things admirably in this chapter. First, he sets the record straight. (Here I have a disclaimer to make: I have published my own statistical analysis of the results of this wine tasting in a paper at this website. As Taber correctly points out, however, the official tabulation did not include the scores of the English and American judges, who organized the event, while mine did! Though the overall results are not altered by this change, I am happy to stand corrected.) As Taber says, "...a whole mythology about the tasting grew up...as people in both California and Franc embellished the event....In fact, my major objective in writing this book was to set the record straight."
And then Taber brings to life the complex interaction of the judges and their own reactions to the wines. Standing like a fly on the wall, while the judges tasted the wines blindly, Taber reports, "I soon realized that the judges were becoming totally confused. The panel couldn't tell the difference between the French ones and those from California." And, as they say, the rest is history.
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