1976 & 1979: A confluence of events that changed wine history

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…

4 Comments

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4 responses to “1976 & 1979: A confluence of events that changed wine history

  1. Matthew Billet

    E… I can agree with the Judgment of Paris (1976), but not buying into the Mondavi piece. Too controversial!!! I accept that Mondavi was a key player as an ambassador for California wine. But, I think Opus One was a horrible mistake. I have enjoyed this wine at times over the years. However, it has always been the most over-priced bottle on the market. In fact, it might have also started the concept of overpriced American Wine. That Opus One essentially claimed a relationship to France (Rothchilds) to garner credibility is a problem for me. We had just proven we made good wine on our own. Opus One reinforced the concept that for California Cabernet to be good, it needed to be like French wine. Wine drinkers and critics for all different sorts of wines have ever since praised or insulted a wine based on whether it is like its french counterpart. It literally at times forces us to drink wine that is intentionally manipulated and crafted to imitate the character of french wine. I believe that American wines should be viewed as a new and different thing, that they are often great not because they are french like but because they are great. Our climate is superior. Our vineyards are often superior! And, first growths are made in relatively huge quantities (dirty little secret) whereas many of our wineries emphasize small production and single vineyard wines. Our wine makers are at least as well educated. And we shouldn’t pressure them to stick to being imitators, or discourage them from new and different blends, concepts and ideas. And, Mondavi as a business concern has also been responsible for flooding the market with a lot of mediocre table wines over the years. Not so of Montelena, Stags Leap, Shafer, Paul Hobbs, Jordans, …. Mondavi was a great man in many ways, but he promoted himself and his own business interests as much as the rest of California. It was from a fortune garnered selling crap table wines that he could afford to donate on such a grand scale. Imagine if America had never commercialized in the direction of jug wine and plonk, and only produced really decent good to exceptional wine that remained reasonably priced? Remember, most of France isn’t drinking first growth Bordeaux or high end burgundy either. But, they do focus on reasonable local and lesser wines in the same way we have now shifted to some degree to local hand crafted breweries as opposed to PBR, Bud, Miller and Coors.

    Finally, as to the concept of globalization! No American wine is sold in quantity anywhere else in the world. Whereas Mondavi brought the French stamp to Opus One to garner American sales and support for a high end overpriced American Cabernet, Rothchilds never actually sold this wine in any meaningful measure in France, or anywhere else in the world. Our cult wines and high end Cabs are essentially invisible outside the American market. The Chinese and Russians aren’t stampeding to buy it at auction. This isn’t to say that noted American Critics (RP, etc.) and the work of UC Davis haven’t been at the forefront of a global movement to clean up, sanitize and improve the quality standards of wine production and management throughout the world. They just don’t see or know about or have an opportunity to buy our wine. And, if the prices of our best wines are over-inflated… that simply doesn’t help. But, there is no balance between trade (import vs export) of wine between the US and the rest of the world. I often suspect that if our relatively reasonably priced central coast, Sonoma, Oregon and Washington state wines were sold in Europe with labels not indicating their origin, or tasted blind against their European counterparts, that trend could be reversed. It happened in 1976, why not on a grand scale in 2016??? Thank you for an insightful article. Just a different look at the same events. And, I prefer the Mondavi sons’ efforts of late to Opus One. Now they are making American wines, and a lot less plonk!

    • Matthew,

      I understand what you are saying, however in the late ’70s, there was still a fledgling foundation from which needed to be built upon in California. Yes, good wines were being made; however, there was a lot of incosistancies, new methods to be employed, UC Davis and Fresno were still working on putting out what would be their first great crop of graduates, Americans were primarily buying Old World and so forth.

      The Argument is not where we are now, but rather what were two seminal moments that got us to where we are. And that’s the place from which you were making your point about our greatness, but the fact remains that we weren’t always there! To dismiss the significance of Mondavi’s impact on that is a wee bit misguided. The American consumer at the time (maybe not yourself) needed to still be convinced and Mondavi/Opus One, along with the Judgement of Paris set those wheels into motion.

      As for Opus, I agree with you, it’s expensive juice and although now corporate in the great vintages it’s still breathtaking. There are better, I even said that in the piece; however that’s not what I’m arguing. Tell me, do those “better” wines drive sell-out crowds to a wine dinner or demand the attention of wine drinkers that aren’t as astute as yourself. No. This is what routinely get’s lost on those of us far more into wine than the regular masses. The masses don’t look for the same things you and I do. Do you think many people have any clue about Montelena, Heitz, Shafer, Joseph Phelps, etc…no chance. Do they pay attention when someone talkes about the dinner in which they had Opus One…you’re damn right. Why, because they know it, it’s that aspirational brand that draws people to it. It’s what many people consider to be the best we have to offer and it’s what largely assisted in changing the “real” perception of what was going on in California during the ’80s, especially on the East Coast.

      Great comment Matthew and I agree with you as far as where we are now vs Bordeaux and much of the Old World. We are great and make sensational wines, have amazing terrior and the most talented winemakers. It just wasn’t always this way. You certainly made this lively my friend!!!

      All the Best – Erol

      • Matthew Billet

        Erol… I think it is clear that we aren’t so much disagreeing, but with the benefit of hindsight (always 20/20) that I believe Mondavi’s approach was flawed. I think I have a bit more confidence in the everyday consumer as wine knowledge and appreciation continue to expand in this country. I also lament that all of these “great” wine producers in this country are following the French example by charging astronomical prices. I realize that the costs of everything, particularly in Napa, are high… but in a sense they did that to themselves by pricing… etc. And, perhaps now the pendulum is swinging the other way… I note that many restaurant wine lists here in the US are featuring and selling predominantly US wines.

      • I agree with the points you make about the here and now, I certainly do. However when speaking about pre-1980s America, the knowledge and acknowledgement of California’s wines simply wasn’t there.

        Hope all is well and that the good juice is flowing!

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