California Wine – Ridge Monte Bello Wins the Judgment of Paris – Revisited

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The now-notorious blind wine-tasting event titled The Judgment of Paris, planned to coincide with America’s 1976 Bicentennial by ex-pat Brit wine merchant/wine school owner Steven Spurrier, could possibly be the single trajectory, unbeknownst at the time to change the course of the California wine industry. Spurrier was head of a Paris Wine School and Cave de la Madeleine wine shop owner who set up the blind wine-tasting competition at the InterContinental Hotel on May 24, 1976, inviting the crème de la crème of French judges; wine specialists, connoisseurs and winery owners. Among the judges who partook in both the Paris event and the London/California 2006 reenactment was Swiss wine writer and critic Michel Dovaz and Parisian sommelier Christian Vanneque formerly of restaurant La Tour d’Argent.

The taster judges save one were French. Patricia Gallagher of l’Academie du Vin and the British event instigator Steven Spurrier tasted but did not vote. Spurrier may have had an ulterior motive to promote his school and wine shop—never imagining the star-struck event would have such earth shattering consequences upsetting the presumption of pre-ordained results. Instead, two of the neophyte California winemakers stood side by side with the Chateaux of Bordeaux. This Defeat of the Gauls embarrassed the haughty French, and showed off the vintners from the other side of the transatlantic tracks.

Spurrier is said to have arranged for the unannounced, unpublicized Taste-Out-at-the-OK-Corral blind-tasting event with pedigreed French equivalents and California reds and whites to enhance the French Wine Industry’s already terra firma reputation as the world’s foremost producers with hundreds of years of winemaking experience, compared to the New World wines from infant vines and toddler vineyards in the unproven terroir of the Wild, Wild West. Four Bordeaux red wines and four white Burgundies were chosen to act as markers against which to evaluate six Californian reds and six whites.

The competition in the tiny Paris hotel near the Champs Elysees, with an entourage of professional tasters ready to blind-taste, rank and grade, with the standard 20-point system, their own French wines—became a veritable mano-a-mano against the California new-kids-on-block. The pontificating judges, with a foregone presumption of superiority, were not ready for the worthiness of the neophyte Californians. It could not have been imagined that the French sophisticates could have started off the tasting—sniffing, swirling, sipping, swilling and spitting—and mistakenly taking the California chardonnays for white Burgundies, Mon Dieu! That was just the beginning of their collective faux pas. It is said the judges may have colluded to rank the French wines high, and again they mistook the wines—not the variety, but the country of origin—mistaking a California Cabernet Sauvignon for their own beloved Bordeaux! Etre couvert de ridicule!

A California ‘competitor’, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, unaware of the event, won the first place for their Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 vintage, the vineyard’s first. Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello ranked fifth out of ten for the Cabernet Sauvignon 1971 vintage made by winemaker Paul Draper, the main subject of this article.

Others whose reds were part of the event; Heitz Wine Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Mayacamas Vineyards, Clos Du Val and Freemark Abbey Winery—California chardonnays were represented by Chateau Montelena, Chalone Vineyard, Spring Mountain, Freemark Abbey, Veedercrest and David Bruce Winery. The California red wines were up against some of the most formidable French wineries; Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Haut Brion, Château Montrose and Chateau Leoville-Las-Cases. The chardonnays were up against the white burgundy chardonnays from the legendary Meursault Charmes Roulot, Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Pruhon, Beaune Clos des Mouches, Joseph Drouhin and Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Le Flaive.

After all was said and done; the statistical interpretation of the judges’ marks added together resulted in Stag’s Leap as the overall #1 winner of the red with the most points out of a possible 20 followed by three of the four Bordeaux Chateaux and #5 the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. Next was Bordeaux followed by the remaining for Californians.

Magic-Maker Winemaker of Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello—Paul Draper

I have chosen to feature Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello for twin reasons; because their award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon is legendary and that their chief winemaker Paul Draper has granted me a rare story interview. I have known Paul Draper for over fifty years; we were friends in Vicenza, Italy, the vineyard-rich Veneto, home to Valpolicella, Bardolino, Prosecco and Soave wines, where I was married and where my son Michael Sean was born. Paul Draper and my husband Richard Venezia were friends in the army working as civilians at SETAF—Southern European Task Force—during the Cold War and for two years we shared many Italian friends, many Italian wines. Our lives crossed again, when my friends Frank and Marilyn Dorsa, owners of La Rusticana D’Orsa Vineyards, and the Venezia family picked grapes at Ridge during their 1973 harvest, two years after their fabled ‘71 vintage. Since those early Veneto days, Paul has become a world-renowned and a revered winemaker, making his magic at Ridge since 1969, overseeing the fine cabernets, chardonnays and complex zinfandels. In addition, Draper pioneered “vineyard designated” wines, instigating the resurgence of the old vine zinfandel, thus rescuing that grape from obscurity.

Paul Draper’s life was somewhat romantically “Hemingwayesque,” if there were such a word; he grew up on a farm, graduated from the Choate School in Connecticut and Stanford University, majoring in philosophy, did a Military Intelligence stint in the Veneto, lived in a Palladian-style villa, rode a motorcycle on Italy’s back roads, rotated out of the Army attended the Sorbonne, interned at the original Chateau Souverain on Howell Mountain in Napa, then helped set up a three-man foundation working in nutrition and community development in Chile. He and a close friend from Stanford reopened an old adobe winery in the coast range of Chile producing cabernet sauvignon. Paul was in Bordeaux for the 1968 vintage and spent his time discussing traditional techniques with the older winemakers. In Chile making three cabernets from three separate vineyards, the differences between the three convinced him of the validity of the French concept of terroir – how the site, soil, climate, exposure and farming can create a consistent, individual character in a wine. Draper, through his pin-point observations of terrain locations, became an avid advocate of cool climate cabernet. Ridge Monte Bello, an established Santa Cruz Mountain appellation vineyard, founded by an Italian doctor in 1886, was purchased in 1959 by Stanford research scientists who brought Paul into the fold in 1969—and as they say, the rest is history. Paul Draper has made winemaking a fine art; fine tuning every aspect, focusing on every nuance from grape to the final nectar of the gods.

Paul told me why he accepted the position of chief winemaker at Ridge; “I had the unusual opportunity in the 1960’s and 70’s to taste the great Bordeaux wines in the best vintage years from the 1920’s to the 1960‘s. One of the main reasons for accepting the job at Ridge was when I tasted the 1959, 1962 and 1964 Monte Bellos; I realized they were as fine as the best Bordeaux. I was not surprised when the 1971 Monte Bello did well with the French tasters in ’76. It was very complex and beautifully balanced and at 12.2% alcohol—it was the style they understood.”

The 1976 Judgment of Paris, now a renowned incident, at the time was an unknown blind-tasting wine event to most of the California winemakers—the results taking them all by surprise according to Draper. “We had no knowledge that this tasting was to take place. I remember Steven Spurrier visiting a year earlier and I tasted several vintages of Monte Bello with him, he knew several of the top tasters in Northern California like Belle and Barney Rhodes—in those days there was a very short list of good Cabernets and Ridge had made wine for some five years longer than anyone else among the small, fine wineries—our first vintage being 1962. I understand he sent his assistant Patricia Gallagher a year later to pick up bottles of the vintages he had chosen. No one remembers her visit or what vintage she bought, or that it would go into a tasting. Spurrier had originally planned to show only six California red wines and six whites by themselves at an American Bicentennial celebration at his wine shop and school in Paris. His students were mainly Americans working for multi-nationals in Paris, and a few Brits doing the same. As he was putting the tasting event together, and had the California wines in hand, and had invited the French experts, he thought it would be more interesting to include four top Bordeaux as markers of quality against which to judge the California cabernets and four top white burgundies against the chardonnays. Most winemakers were unaware that the tasting was to be a comparison of Bordeaux and California, let alone it would have any effect. I received no phone calls, there was no press overage until George Taber, as a stringer for TIME Magazine Paris wrote a short piece and someone forwarded me a copy. I can’t stress enough how little wine coverage there was in those days…”

The Taber article was a fluke. Gallagher invited him because he had taken a wine class at the school. Taber sauntered into the Hotel InterContinental on a slow news day, was privy to the judges’ chit-chat and wrote about it. Paris TIME editors shortened the 2000-word piece to four paragraphs (ouch!). But, the debilitated piece was to be the serendipitous shot heard around the wine world; California wines had equaled the French in Cabernet Sauvignon and ranked well in the whites. No one else covered the ho-hum event—no one. Taber’s comments amused Draper—a Bordeaux Château owner who sat on the official committee that judges each year what is true Bordeaux—blind-tasted the Ridge Monte Bello ’71 vintage and stated; “This is classic Bordeaux….” It was Draper’s Ridge Monte Bello vintage ‘71 Cabernet Sauvignon! How do the French say ‘egg on ze face’?

After Taber’s minor piece in TIME, there were only four or five insignificant mentions of the Paris tasting and some reaction in wine-related letters; half of which attacked the conditions and tasters’ lack of experience with California wines. The French comments were that with age, the California wines would fade, as the Bordeaux wines developed their full complexity. It is worthy to note; Taber’s 2000-word manuscript, edited to three-paragraphs, is now housed in the Smithsonian Museum for posterity.

Draper continued. “As I mentioned we didn’t know what wine Patricia Gallagher had purchased and when we found out it was the ‘71, we were disappointed because it is a more elegant vintage at 12.2% alcohol and we felt the 1970 vintage was a more structured, longer-lived and greater vintage. We wished we could have chosen the ‘70. We weren’t particularly excited—after all we were in fifth place, having no idea that others would use it for marketing, and make a big deal of it as years went by…”

It seemed that the 1976 Paris wine-tasting event had faded—blurring, mellowing like wines in cool, dark barrel cellars, lost to the ephemeral memory of near-forgotten history until the sequel—The Sequel.

For some odd reason I remember the London/California sequel well. I was driving in Los Gatos to my antiques shop in 2006, when KGO radio blasted the news about the Judgment of Paris revisited on the 30th anniversary in London and at COPIA in Napa Valley. I heard about the near-legend of Stag’s Leap, and when they mentioned Paul Draper at Ridge Monte Bello as being one of the 1976 winners, my ears pricked up; I turned up the volume, followed the story. The young guns of California had finally come into their own; their recognition as superior New World winemakers toppled the elite French wines—the worm had turned—the best was yet to come. Paul reiterated the events leading to the sequel at COPIA—American Centre for Wine, Food and the Arts on May 24, 2006.

“Lord Rothschild, of the English branch of the family, a great wine lover, who sits on the Boards of Mouton and Chateau Lafite proposed to Steven Spurrier to have a thirty-year repeat. The proposition for the wine tasting was that it would take place simultaneously in the U.K. and California. In England they would taste in the evening and in the U.S. in the morning of the same day so the results could be combined as the two tastings would finish simultaneously. The panel at Berry Bros. and Rudd in London was even more experienced than the original French tasters of 1976, and included leading U.K. tasters such as Jancis Robinson and Michael Broadbent as well as the top French taster Michele Bettane.” California producers were abuzz about the tasting event, the historic first in Paris, the sequel in London and California—how better could a wine-imbued life be?

Paul Draper had known so little about the near-obscure Paris event until after the fact, but with the twin-tasting 2006 sequel—the wine industry and press were on fire. “I attended the Napa gathering, as did other Californians whose wines were in the tasting, as well as other producers whose wines were not part of the original tasting—we were rightly not allowed to taste, only the independent tasters. The media were there; television news, radio broadcasters, writers—the event was fully covered, unlike the Paris tasting. Articles, cover stories, television, wine magazines; British and Americans hung on every word. The significant event confirmed that some California wines could age as well as Bordeaux wines—most objections to the original tasting were finally silenced forever. For us at Ridge, it was much more significant as the 1971 Monte Bello won by 18 points over the second place wine— (2nd, 3rd and 4th were grouped together). Hundreds were gathered for an al fresco lunch when the call came through from London—the U.K. scores were tabulated with the U.S. scores—the announcement was made—the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello had won. I was invited to the podium in front of my peers…”

The déjà vu ghosts of the first Paris win returned; The Ridge Monte Bello vintage ’71 had held up over the thirty-year period In Draper’s own words; “Over the years, we had tasted several of the California and Bordeaux wines and most were not as fresh, some were fading, while to our surprise, the 1971 Monte Bello, given its elegant style and modest 12.2% alcohol, was holding beautifully at 35 years…I felt going in that we had a very good chance of placing well and possibly winning—but the fact of an actual win was something else. I was overwhelmed. I recovered sufficiently to get on my soapbox and remind my peers that this complex and long-lived wine was 12.2% alcohol and not the current California Cabernet style of 15% alcohol. The multiple interviews, TV spots, and the serious positive coverage in the U.K., Europe and the U.S. was a total change from the 1976 Paris tasting.”

After the 30-year reenactment of the Judgment of Paris, California wines and winemakers had deservedly reached the seminal momentum of rock-star status; world-wide coverage giving le vin de Californie placement among its pedigreed French equivalents, underscoring oenophiles’ already-experienced fervent epiphanies, sending fabled California wines on a soaring trajectory to victory allowing them to begin to compete in the Old World markets, thus reshaping the sphere of enology.

Terroir—A Sense of Place


California mountain ridges and valleys, with unique terroir and macro and microclimates affecting viticulture—produce some of the best appellation wines by imparting unique grape qualities. Ancient Greek, Sicilian and Etruscan vintners also valued the places where their grapes grew. It was a source of pride even before Christ walked Galilee—their imprimaturs sealed on amphorae for shipping across the seas. Wine has long been terroir-driven; it is said that medieval Benedictine and Cistercian monks of Burgundy actually tasted their soil.

The Santa Cruz Mountain ridge, high above Silicon Valley, with an elevation range of 1300 to 2700 feet, 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean, kissed by marine mist, blessed by perfect terroir, has been home to Bordeaux grape varietals at the fabled Ridge Monte Bello estate vineyards for 125 years—and for 42 of those years—home to winemaker extraordinaire Paul Draper, his wife Maureen and daughter Caitlin.

In the fall after the event, Paul was taken by surprise. “I was delighted and impressed when the top French critics, Michel Bettane and Thierry Dessauve chose Michel Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages and me as co-winners of the Wine Men of the Year award presented in Paris in front of an audience of 500 representatives of the top French wine estates. It was clearly a result of the 30-year repeat and the Ridge Monte Bello 1971 winning by such a margin. Both tastings had shown that other regions of the world were capable of producing fine wines that could rival even the greatest French wines…”

The enormous success of Ridge Monte Bello is underscored by their refreshing approach of traditional, natural winemaking techniques—depending on organic viticulture, when the earth itself, with low-yielding century-old vines creates the grapes for wines of great significance, depth and complexity. The rich earth—combination of elevation, cool climate, chalky minerality and limestone-rich soils—contributes to the exotic terrain giving the wines distinctive character. When Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc can contribute greater complexity by complementing the cabernet sauvignon, it creates superb one-of-a-kind wines.

Paul Draper, in his mellifluous beguiling voice and inimitable restrained savoir faire philosophizes; “Several thousand years ago the first grapes were broken, left in a bowl and in the course of a few days or weeks the yeast on the grapes transformed them into wine. This natural transformation was something inexplicable, something sacred. Wine carried this symbolism all the way to Christian and Jewish rituals of today. Grown from the earth it connects us to the cycles of the seasons and grounds us. It need not be an industrial product made from grapes. It can still be a natural beverage, kept on the straight and narrow by the hand of man…”

Stellar Cellar

How does one describe a serious wine lover? A connoisseur, an aficionado, a person with passion—this describes 17-year Professional Wine Society member David Markus who breathes the aura of wine and relishes the social ambiance that fine wines represent. His enological knowledge sets him apart savoring the nuances of the nectar, the vintages, the wineries, the winemakers and the earthy subtlety of each unique terroir.

I met David years ago at a grape harvest and later called upon his wine expertise when I liquidated a San Jose estate with a substantial wine cellar collection. David was referred as the Go To Guy and I told Joe’s wine buyer about Mr. Vino who was coming to help me pick and price the best for Mr. Montana. David came over, and in the dusty, musty darkness of the cellar culled the finest of the collection—helping me pull and price the most important wines. I never revealed to David who the mystery buyer was until now.

David Markus provided the images for this piece—not the first time—his photography appeared in ALIVE Magazine’s La Rusticana Vineyards story a few years ago and recently he was the official photographer for the Yountville Judgment of Paris Revisited event in October.

Comments

  1. Fantastic article and photographa. How may I get in touch with Mr. Markus to hire his photography services

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