Gallic revenge

The French were in for a rude shock. A jury, drawn from the most hallowed establishments of French wine snobbery, rated two Californian newbies as the best in their category. The French media ignored the event.

Sourish Bhattacharyya | Print Edition: August 24, 2008

Sourish Bhattacharyya
The wine world is abuzz with the story of how the French have had their sweet revenge on the American château that upstaged them at the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris, which is now the subject of the film starring Alan Rickman, Bottle Shock. Barely a couple of weeks before the film’s US release, Cos d’Estournel, a Bordeaux château with an old Indian connection (more of it later), capitalising on a weak dollar, announced it was buying the Napa Valley vintner. The wine trade estimates the deal was sealed at between $110 million (Rs 473 crore) and $150 million (Rs 645 crore).

That’s a lot of money to make for a wine estate that was started in the boondocks of the San Francisco Bay Area in 1972 by James P. Barrett, who’s played in Bottle Shock by the new Hollywood heart-throb, Chris Pine. For France’s beleaguered wine industry, there couldn’t have been better news. So, how did the Californians—“the kids from the sticks”, as Barrett described them famously in Time magazine in 1976—hit the French where it hurts the most? In 1976, Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant in Paris, came up with the grand idea of conducting a blind tasting of French and Californian wines.

The French found it difficult to believe Spurrier had the temerity to make this suggestion, but they decided to go along with the idea. The French were in for a shock. A jury, drawn from the most hallowed establishments of French wine snobbery, rated two Californian newbies—a Chardonnay from Montelena and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars—as the best white and red wines, respectively. Pitted against them in this clash of civilisations were Burgundy notables and Bordeaux’s best-known châteaus. The French media ignored the event; so the lone reporter covering it, Time’s George Taber, wrote a brilliant story and then a best-selling book.

Gaul Calling: In Bottle Shock, an about-tobe-released film starring Alan Rickman, the young Chris Pine plays Chateau Montelena’s owner, James P. Barrett
The French newspaper, Le Figaro, reporting the event three months later, called the results “laughable”. Taber, predictably, had the last word. And I must reproduce a paragraph from Taber’s report, which I consider the most delightful piece of journalism on wine nonsense: “More often, the panel was confused. ‘Ah, back to France!’ exclaimed (the doyen of French culinary writers, Raymon) Oliver after sipping a 1972 Chardonnay from the Napa Valley. ‘That is definitely California. It has no nose,’ said another judge—after downing a Batard Montrachet ’73.” The French have been nursing their wounded pride for over three decades. Montelena’s acquisition is the Gallic equivalent of the empire striking back, but I must end this story with a nugget about my visit to Cos d’Estournel.

It’s the only French wine house whose museum has a corner dedicated to India. This is because one of its original owners loved Marwari horses and used to import them from Jodhpur’s royal family. In return, the Frenchman exported his wine and the royals loved it so much that they became its most important customers. Even the wines that couldn’t be sold in India became moneyspinners for Cos. Gallic pride and Indian masala. You can’t get a better story.

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