The Grand Jury of Wine is In…CA wins again.

It appears the French will keep at it until they get the results they want.

For 30 years a certain humiliation infested the French wine industry as a result of the "Paris Tasting of 1976" in which California wines bested the French in a taste off. With great hope for vindication, the French watched the recreation of that tasting just this year. Yet again, California wines bested the French.

Not content to be good PR practitioners and let this issue die, the French recently conducted another blind taste off against California wine. The results didn’t quite pan out the way they hoped.

French wine writer Francois Mauss founded the "Grand Jury European" reportedly to create a body toMauss
counter the influence of Robert Parker. Among the first jobs of this new "Wine Jury" was to create another Taste Off between French and Californian wines that, to Mauss’ view, would be more fair than previous comparisons. The tasting that occured in late September brought together 15 CA and 15 French wines, all Cabernet and Merlot-based, from the 1995 vintage.

The judges were a combination of European palates and "New World" palates.

California won again.

Of the Top Five wines determined by the entire panel  Abreu (Madrona Ranch), Beringer Private Reserve
ands Pahlmeyer Propriatory Red came in 1, 2 and 3. Valandraud
and Latour came in 4th and 5th. The top 10 wines consisted of 6 California wines.

Yet here’s the really interesting thing. When you look at the scores given to the wines only by judges belonging to Mauss’ Grand Jury European, 8 of the top ten wines are Californian.

How could this be? Xavier Planty of Chateau Guiraud, where this new judgment was held, explained the latest defeat of French wines at the hands of European palates like this:

‘When tasting wines from
your own area, the critical part of your brain is switched on, when
tasting from another area, the pleasure part is switched on.’

I think it’s pretty clear that M. Planty needs to stay away from writers if he is going to be attempting to explain why French wines don’t do well against California wines.

There is a simple explanation for why the California wines come out on top: They appear to be better wines than their counterparts. There is no other explanation. And incidentally, though it should go without saying—although I won’t allow that—this matter of California wines appearing to be better wines than the French wines is a function of the palates evaluating the wines, not the wines themselves.

Decanter On-line has a very very good couple of articles on this whole affair. This one lists the results, while this one looks into the lead up to the tasting. By the way, this article on the lead up to the tasting has an interesting "Tit for Tat" in the article’s comment section between Francois Mauss of the Grand Jury European ands Steven Spurrier, who organized the two "Tastings of Paris." Clearly there is no love lost between these two.

There is great deal of weirdness that infuses this issue of "Old World" vs. "New World". That weirdness is wrapped up in market forces, the global economy, new styles of winemaking, extraordinary egos, and the debasement of the idea of "terroir" in the service of the protectors of old world pride. These various Old v. New World tastings are just the most obvious mistakes that result from the strange rivalries that have emerged in the past fifteen or twenty years. Though it goes unsaid, these tastings are organized with the hope that the French will be proven to produce "better" wines than California vintners. For a country that hangs its hat on the idea that "terroir", soil and a "sense of place" should be the governing consideration in evaluating a wine, this reliance of comparative tastings between CA and French wines seems rather odd, I think.

3 Responses

  1. Ken Payton - October 26, 2006

    Indeed, the Old vrs. New World saw is wearing thin. I am reminded of conversations around the Thanksgiving dinner table when the entire gathered family including in-laws parse the children. “Little Timmy has uncle his grandfather’s eyes.” “No, those are from great-grandma Lois.” “Surely his hands are his mother’s.” “Well, you’d have to agree his feet, Timmy, show us your feet, see, they’re his uncle’s.” “You mean your uncle Ted who missed the field goal in in the final seconds…” “Hey, now wait just a minute!”
    And on it goes. It seems to me we have simutaneously too much and too little information about wine, especially about its production. I work in a small winery and I know just how much more wine can be sold out of the tasting room if details of the growing conditions, soil types, the lay of the land, etc. are discussed as the guests drink. They even marvel at the punch down when done in their presence. If, however, the discussion drifts to the winemaker’s intervention, the elaborate technology oft times used to force a commercial wine into existence, say, the wine the guest now drinks, an almost personal offense is taken. It is as though the winemaker assumed, from the very beginning, the guest’s taste was pedestrian, ordinary, partaking of a general palate. A wine taster wants to believe they are drinking a landscape and not the end product of market researched chemistry. Intellectual perception follows taste very closely in my experience.
    This is not to say a winemaker’s technological manipulation is bad or should not occur. I do think, however, that the New world has less interest in promoting terroir characteristics than the Old, by which I mean France, precisely because terroir for them doesn’t count. France has had centuries to work out what varietals will grow where. They believe their historical attention to the land and soil ought to amount to something. Whereas in America Thanksgiving has become but a shallow pot hole on the way to Christmas and ‘history is bunk’, as has been famously said. Tech trumps terroir here, but not if openly revealed or promoted in the market place.
    Lastly and a bit off point, I believe the popularity of Parker resides in his ability to suggest a constellation of flavors (all that granite and graphite licking, and of squirrel’s breath after a mouthful of chestnuts) takes place within the privacy of one’s own mind, and it is a very Protestant notion; whereas the Catholic notion of the primacy of the public drives terroir-minded souls.
    Just a thought.
    Tom, great blog.

  2. Chris Campbell - October 26, 2006

    You are right on the mark! Had to be said and you said it eloquently!

  3. JohnLopresti - October 29, 2006

    I would hope that the French, like their rival neighbors across the Chunnel in the UK, would develop a globalist appreciation of the beautiful baby they created when they helped start US viticulture and enology in century XIX, just as the British have developed an appreciation of the US style of civilization as a natural outgrowth of Old World ways.
    The Brits are glad we became world leaders, like the successful child of their system; the French should rejoice, too, that they have occasion now to learn so much from American enologists and vineyard management science.
    An interesting future comparison with French wines might be a competition in varietals other than the two in this test. Some academics in this ‘field’ in the US complain US research is lagging, when compared to the centuries of effort the French and other European vinifera developers put forth to create our modern distinctive premium varietals.
    And beyond varietalism is neoModern CA terroir; the optimizing of varietal selection genetically in the experiment plots eventually will yield even more distinctive cultivars to accent our own climate. However, with this global climate change process, I worry we are headed into a few centuries of peripatetic viticulturists following climate and having to leave behind some great terroir. Perhaps this will produce a generic vine of the future that has its own intelligent adaptability to ‘WhatEver’ the terroir.
    On the sommellier view, I tend to agree that the exotic blend of flavor and other organoleptics in a newly tasted wine can produce an overlay of subjective bias, i.e., enjoyment, in a judge who otherwise would be more dispassionate in the taste-off comparisons. I would compare it to the first time you see, say, Interlaken[1], or Yosemite valley[2]. Or, maybe the wine is like what you expect from a once great site now beset by difficulties from environment factors, as shown in this[3] nice collection of essays and photos about a modern enterprise to raise premium fruit in the foothill section of the once lively Almaden.
    [3] you have to prowl thru the site, look at viticulture submenu or even photos section.

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