Many wine buffs debate the seminal moment when American wine announced its arrival. I’d argue that it wasn’t any one moment, but rather two that drove American wine to the forefront of the consumer’s psyche and Europe’s envy.
When you ask someone who’s familiar with wine history, “When did American wine become relevant?” the most common response would typically be the Judgment of Paris. Typically, blind tasting of wines are nothing of note and this event started out in the same nondescript fashion.
George Taber worked for Time Magazine at the time and was the only journalist to cover the now famed “Judgment of Paris”.
Back in 1976, Steven Spurrier, a British ex-pat living in Paris decided to put on a wine tasting to assist in promoting his struggling wine shop. With the American Bi-Centennial coming up, he thought it the perfect opportunity to showcase the wines of California versus their obviously superior French counterparts. Who can blame him? Sounds like something interesting and fun.
What no one, including Spurrier, could have imagined was that two American wineries (Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena) bested the Frenchies in both the white and red categories. Wait…WTF?! On top of that, they bested some of the best houses in Bordeaux and Burgundy, France’s bastions of wine excellence.
Now those who make the argument for the Judgment of Paris being the seminal moment have a strong case. This I’m not disputing; however the one reality that is oft overlooked is that this event, although an awesome story that lent itself to a cute movie (Bottle Shock), is not quite as resonating as many think. Think of it this way, it’s like having a PB&J with just the jelly…it’s good, but it’s missing something.
Now it’s time for the peanut butter. In my opinion, an equally significant event took place 63 years earlier with the birth of Robert Mondavi. I’m not here to retell the provocative journey of son of Italian immigrants who went on to become Napa’s most iconic figure (however, if you want to know more about Robert Mondavi, I recommend the book The House of Mondavi…it’s damn awesome). Rather, I’d like to speak to two of the aspects that made this man iconic. First, he was California’s ambassador of wine and did more than anyone to promote the high quality of the wines coming from the fledgling NapaValley. From wine shop owners and to restaurantuers from NYC to Chicago to presidents and dignitaries, everyone heard about the exciting things happening not just at Charles Krug, and later Robert Mondavi Winery, but across Californian wineries in general.
A playful moment with two icons of the wine world: Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild
The second aspect of Mondavi that made him unique was his early vision and embrace of Globalization and business. We could speak of his marketing exploits or his numerous joint ventures with Old and New World wine houses; however it’s a joint venture with a famed Bordeaux chateau that’s worthy of our attention. In 1979 Robert Mondavi teamed up with infamous Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton-Rothchild (who was soon survived by his daughter Baroness Philippine), to create Opus One.
Opus One is the most significant wine in America. You know it, I know it and the guy down the street that pounds Old Milwaukee knows it. It’s not because it’s the best, although in some vintages it’s been damn near perfect. Rather, Opus One represents the first time that the Old World and Americans alike recognized us as equals in the wine. It’s the single wine worthy of having Bordelaise royalty on the same wine label with Napa royalty. Up until that point, California (and Napa more specifically) had been viewed as a backward, hick village that made some nice table wines. That all changed in the early autumn of ’79 when legendary winemakers Lucien Sionneau and Tim Mondavi teamed up to create the first vintage of Opus One.
This union represents something very significant, as not only did Europe’s perception of American change, but America’s view of American wine changed. Dating back to Thomas Jefferson, Americans have always looked across the Atlantic for their wines. Outside of Californians and to a slightly larger extent the West Coast, most Americans had largely shunned the wines from the “sticks”.
Both of these events took place within a couple years of each other and the momentum they created led to the US Wine Industry as we largely know it today. It wasn’t that one was more significant than the other (although that’s certainly a fun debate), but rather the confluence of these two events running simultaneously that made this period so significant. In many ways, the Judgment of Paris was only possible due to the unabashed promotion and increased quality ushered in by Mondavi (and his colleagues). On the flip-side, the potential of a venture such as Opus One was made possible by the success of Napa’s wines at the Judgment of Paris tasting. Thus, these events and figures are equally important, not only to American wine, but to each other. Imagine if neither had happened…