The Day California Won First Prize

In 1972, during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to France, Steven Spurrier, a young English wine merchant in Paris, bought five cases of a Burgundy-style white from a vineyard in Hambledon, England, for a state dinner at the British Embassy. Just before the dinner, Spurrier was told that his wine could not be imported. The list of French customs duties had no category for English wine.

How amusant of the English to plant a vineyard, all the way on the far side of the channel! No doubt you could grow grapes in America, but the inhabitants would probably use them for jelly. So four years later, when Spurrier got the idea of a tasting to introduce his French friends to some of the California wines he'd been hearing about, he threw in a few Burgundies and Bordeaux for comparison. This might have been the first time that California and French wines went head to head in a major tasting, with nine experienced French judges: sommeliers, chefs, winemakers and critics. Knowing the French, Spurrier decanted the wines into anonymous bottles, because it was too much to expect them to be fair about another country's wines. Not that he expected, or even wanted, the imports to win. Spurrier didn't even sell California wines in his shop.

The result has gone down in legend, and now at last there's a sprightly and definitive account in a new book, "Judgment of Paris" by the American writer George M. Taber, the only journalist who was there. The French judges chose the 1973 Chateau Montelena, made in California by Mike Grgich, as the top Chardonnay, over a highly regarded Meursault Charmes. Among the reds, the 1973 Stag's Leap from Napa Valley edged out a Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The event "destroyed the myth of French supremacy," Robert M. Parker Jr. wrote 25 years later. The discovery that great wines could be grown on soil untrodden by Charlemagne led to a grape boom in California and indeed around the world. Spurrier's experiment paved the way for Marilyn Merlot and Red Truck red (above story). If only he'd known, he might have left the labels on.