We didn’t study mythology in journalism school, and most of the myths we learned about in business school pertained to the reliability of economic modeling. So it was a revelation, recently received, that “The Judgment of Paris” is a tale from Greek mythology. I had thought it referred only to the most famous wine tasting of the past 50 years.
The Greek myth begins at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, to which all of the gods were invited except Eris, the goddess of discord. Naturally, she tried to crash the wedding, and in her anger at being turned away cast a golden apple addressed “To the Fairest” into a group of goddesses. Three of them—Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena—laid claim to it.
Zeus was asked to decide which of the three was the most beautiful, but he demurred. (Wouldn’t you?) He instead commanded Hermes to lead the goddesses to Paris, a mortal shepherd-prince, who would decide the matter. All three goddesses tried to bribe Paris. Turning down Hera’s offer of all of Europe and Asia and Athena’s promise of wisdom and superlative skill in battle, Paris accepted Aphrodite’s bribe: the love of the most beautiful woman on Earth, Helen of Troy. Unfortunately, Helen was married to the King of Sparta, and Paris’s efforts to abduct her set off the Trojan War.
Of only slightly less consequence was the Judgment of Paris of May 1976, a competition organized by a British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier in which top-quality chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines from the United States were tasted against French counterparts. The judges were French and—according to George Taber, a Time magazine reporter who covered the event—they were snooty and often mistaken.
“That is definitely California; it has no nose,” said one as he downed a Batard-Montrachet ’73. “Ah, back to France,” said another while sipping a Napa Valley chardonnay. When the results were tallied, the highest-scoring cabernet was a Napa Valley Stag’s Leap Cellars ’73, which topped four grand cru chateau reds from Bordeaux, including a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild ’70 and a Chateau Haut-Brion ’70.
The top chardonnay was also from California: a Chateau Montelena ’73 crafted by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, a Croatian immigrant who had previously worked with Robert Mondavi, who had himself moved to the Napa Valley from Hibbing, Minnesota.
The Americans gloated, the French pouted. Taber reported the results in Time, and they were picked up by newspapers throughout the United States. A Los Angeles Times headline read: “Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Cru.” In France, Le Figaro labeled the results “laughable,” and Le Monde said that the French wines in the competition were too young to have achieved full flavor. Spurrier was accused of falsifying the scores and was banned without explanation from the nation’s wine-tasting tour for a year.
American winemakers were not banned from French tastings, however. In a competition three years later, David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville, Oregon, and a pioneer in Oregon’s wine industry, entered a 1975 South Block Reserve pinot noir. It came in second to a 1959 Joseph Drouhin Chambolle Musigny, produced by one of Burgundy’s most famous winemaking families—and suddenly Oregon was on the map of international oenophiles.
One might expect California winemakers to be upset at having to share their celebrity with Oregonians, but winemaker Ken Evenstad, the subject of November's cover feature, says that was not the case. When he bought his wine-growing property southwest of Portland, Oregon, in 1989, “California, which has a Mediterranean climate, had essentially given up on pinot noirs,” he says. “There were no producers, essentially, of any merit. They didn’t have a dog in the fight in ’89, much less in ’79.”
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the 1979 competition was that it inspired Robert Drouhin, a scion of Joseph Drouhin, to launch Domain Drouhin near Dayton, Oregon, across a road from where Evenstad would begin Domaine Serene less than a decade later.
If you have not tried Domaine Serene pinot noirs, you should. Wine Spectator called the 2006 Evenstad Reserve “round and smooth, with a lovely polished feel.” Wine and Spirits called it “one of the year’s best pinot noirs.” Of special note is the winery’s Mark Bradford, the most concentrated, most opaque pinot noir I have ever seen. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate described it as “a layered, savory, spicy, dark-fruited wine with exceptional depth and a pure finish.” In my own judgment, it is much better than the wine made next door.