Bottle Rock: The Judgement of Paris Revisited
Alexandria, VA – Z~ Oenology routinely focuses on wineries around the DMV, some near, others far. For those who are short on time or transportation, we are staying home and visiting a local wine purveyor in Z hood this month.
Last month, Cheesetique, a favorite foodie fixture in Del Ray, celebrated the anniversary of the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine contest by launching “the coolest wine flight ever” in their restaurant and offering a wine bottle trio by special order at a grand discount.
Coveted and at times pricey, California wines now hold worldwide esteem. It was not always so. For decades in the last century, California wine was deemed largely forgettable, much like Virginia wine until the last few years. An ambitious Englishman living in Paris changed that tune in 1976 when he proposed a contest pitting the best Californian wines against the oenological titans of French Grand Crus to celebrate the American Bicentennial.
Steven Spurrier, who owned the Cave de la Madeleine wine shop (then one of the finest in Paris) and the Academie du Vin wine school, organized the event. Spurrier recruited the indisputably top French “du vin” experts to blind taste four white French Burgundies against six California Chardonnays and four red Grand Cru Chateau Bordeaux vins against six California Cabernet Sauvignons. The results? Il sont histoire!
In a shock felt around the wine world, a Napa 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon earned the highest rating over such storied Bordeaux bottles as Mouton-Rothschild ‘70, Haut-Brion ‘70, and Montrose ‘70. The white Burgundies, including the second-place 1973 Meursault-Charmes, fell to the unassuming Napa kickstart Chateau Montelena ‘73 with the Monterey ‘74 Chalone and the ‘73 Spring Mountain from Napa (the winery made even more famous as the setting for the TV winery drama Falcon Crest) as the third and fourth place white wines.
The Judgment of Paris received renewed interest in the battle of the bottles in 2008 when the movie Bottle Shock hit the big screen. The film featured veteran English actor, the late great Alan Rickman, as Spurrier, the ever-affable Bill Pullman as the indefatigable winemaker Jim Barrett, and newcomer Chris Pine as Barrett’s rebel-without-a-cause hippie son Bo. As Cheesetique owner and manager Jill Erber noted, the Judgment of Paris was “Perhaps the greatest coup in the history of international wine – and the event that put American wines on the map.”
The 2008 film followed the third Judgment of Paris, celebrating the 30th anniversary in 2006 (there was also a 1986 ten-year rematch) when the Californians triumphed against their Gallic rivals once more. Comments by the French oenophiles throughout the judging were incorporated into the Bottle Shock film script: “This is definitely California. It has no nose,” referring to a ‘73 Batard Montrachet. And, “Ah! Back to France!” upon tasting a ‘72 Napa Chardonnay – not even the winning Montelena.
It’s all the more astonishing to consider that at the time, these triumphant California wines cost, on average, a bargain $6. Times and prices have changed. Costs for modern vintages of the competition wines run from a humble $50-75 (more at the wineries) to thousands for the French labels – and I don’t mean euros.
To celebrate the 46th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, Cheesetique offered three California wines judged in 1976, including the top white and top two reds. The Chateau Montelena 2019 Chardonnay, the Clos du Val 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2019 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Artemis.” All were available by order for $149 (a $190 value) and in the dining room as a wine flight. The tasting trio is sold out, but the Stag’s Leap Artemis, which never disappoints, is available in the shop and on the wine list.
Since the judged wines are priced high, I selected Virginia wines available at Cheesetique that complement the winning Judgment of Paris wines. If you enjoy what you try at Cheesetique, you can visit the corresponding Virginia winery.
The top white 1973 Montelena was 100% Chardonnay. The 2019 Chateau Montelena, which sells for $70 at the winery, boasts notes of the expected peach, pear, pineapple, apricot, mango, and honeysuckle. The mouth is supple and silky, evoking a taste likened to crème brûlée or toast yielding to a spicy, nutty finish. Each time I try the Montelena Chard, it’s a different delicious trip around the palate.
Virginia Option: Zephaniah “Steamship,” a Virginia white blend reminiscent of the seductive texture and intoxicating nectars and spice of the Montelena Chard with a surprising hint of tannins that harkens back to the Pinot Chardonnay style of the ‘73 Chateau Montelena. Available by the glass, carafe, and bottle.
The Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis, among the gold standards for more-affordable Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, is a blend of estate fruit and Cab sourced from other Napa vineyards. Prepare for aromas of cassis, black cherries, blackberry, dark chocolate, espresso, even leather, and tasting notes of pepper, violets, pumpkin-pie spice, and cherry cordial. The highest-rated 1973 vintage was made from the grapes of a three-year-old vine. Most newly planted vines take five to seven years before they bear fruit used to produce drinking wine.
Virginia Option: From Jill’s Reserve Wine List Stinson Vineyards Cabernet Franc Monticello AVA Aged in French Oak. This is a nice follow-up to the Artemis, standing on its own with soft tannins, understated oak, and bright fruity and floral aromatics with a spicy finish. The comparable Stinson 2017 Meritage, a Cab Sauv/Cab Franc heavy Bordeaux-style blend ranked high enough to be in the prestigious 2022 Governor’s Cup.
The 1972 Clos du Val was the first-place red wine in the 1986 rematch, vexing the Francophile wine experts and oenophiles worldwide yet again. The 2019 scored 92 points by Wine Enthusiast, 97 for the 2018 release. The 2019 has incidental amounts of Bordeaux-style blending, including Merlot. It’s boldly dark, fruit-forward with expansive berry, spice, and tannins perfecting the taut structure and balanced smoothness.
Cheesetique carries two other highly recommended Virginia wines: Barboursville Viognier Reserve and Barboursville Cuvée 1814 Brut Rose NV, a 100 % Pinot Noir sparkling wine produced via the Champagne Method in Oltrepò Pavese, Italy.
Barboursville is one of the top wineries in Virginia, a regular in the Governor’s Cup Case with a lineup of award-winning wines. If you are at the winery or browsing at your local wine shop, pick up a bottle of the 2018 Octagon, rated 95 points by James Suckling with a cellar life of 20 years. This vintage defied the weather odds and gods in a challenging year for all Virginia growers.
Cheesetique, “where it’s cool to be cheesy,” is a great place to learn about wine as well as cheese. Wine and cheese pairings, oenology classes, themed wine dinners, tastings, and meet-the-winemaker are among the fun and educational offerings online and in person. Jill has also curated an extensive line of non-alcohol wines. Check the Cheesetique website for upcoming events and sign up for the newsletter to stay current and in the know. After all, wine loves cheese. And there’s no place like home!
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