The first blind tasting that involved California wines and French wines shook the world. Because at the time it was assumed that only the French could make great wine. An English fella by the name of Steven Spurrier changed all that. And here's the story. A couple of things though, there was no boxing ring and a couple of the characters were made up. But it's still awesome.
The True Story of California Wine’s Coming to Fame: “Bottle Shock” Movie Synopsis
The wine industry makes an appearance in the world of Hollywood film in this 2008 movie, based on a true story, starring A-listers Chris Pine and the late Alan Rickman. As many good wine stories often do, this one begins in France, with Paris-based British ex-pat wine expert Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), the founder and owner of the high-end pretentious Académie du Vin, established in 1973. L’Académie (which has been re-launched today in an online version) holds the title as France’s first privately-held independent wine school, and was established in a brick-and-mortar location adjacent to Spurrier’s pre-existing wine shop, Caves de la Madeleine.
At its naissance, Académie du Vine was established to educate eager learners on the world of fine wine, with special emphasis on teaching British and American ex-pats, as Spurrier himself was at the time. His tastings (and sales through Caves de la Madeleine) were heavily dominated by French wine and therefore had extreme bias to domestic wines. This trend wasn’t specific to Spurrier’s shop, however. In the early 1970s, the fine wine world was heavily dominated by European winemakers, typically the producers of Old World wines. Although wine surely was being produced in countries outside of Europe, the predominating school of thought at the time was that the only “good wines” came out of Europe.
Spurrier himself was among those who believed in the supremacy of European wine. That being said, in 1976, Spurrier hopped across the pond to America, where west-coast winemakers were attempting to make a name for themselves in California. At this point in time, California wines were nowhere near as revered as they are now. In fact, America was relatively non-existent on the world stage of wine. So why would a snobby European sommelier such as Steven Spurrier waste his time in the Golden State? Well big things were set to happen back at Académie du Vine on May 24, 1976, namely a blind taste test which would come to be known as the “Judgement of Paris” (more on that in a moment!).
So Spurrier made his way to the US of A to pick up some scrappy young California wine to bring back over to his shop in Paris (and to taste some of the Colonel’s Kentucky Fried Chicken as shown in the movie, but that may have to be fact-checked…). Hence the name of the movie, “Bottle Shock”, which refers to the strange alteration or dulling of wine flavor that can occur when wines are shaken up during travel. In reality, the cure to this “wine ailment” is simply time. The pros will tell you to give the bottles time to rest before opening them up after travel.
Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon would be the two varietals of choice for the 1976 showdown. Spurrier played fair, and made sure to pick up a selection of California wines from a variety of winemakers and cellars; Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Ridge Vineyards, Heitz Wine Cellars, Clos Du Val Winery, Mayacamas Vineyards, Freemark Abbey Winery, Chateau Montelena, Chalone Vineyard, Spring Mountain Vineyard, Veedercrest Vineyards, and David Bruce Winery. No shortage of selections there, and likely an extra bag-check or two at the airport. In the Hollywood adaptation of the story, Spurrier (Rickman) and local Napa vintner Bo Barrett (Chris Pine) recruit fellow patrons at the airport to grab a few of the bottles to carry-on themselves to lighten the load!
California vintners who spoke with Spurrier were hesitant of the reasoning behind the tasting, however. Many called Spurrier out for attempting to humiliate the Americans by putting their amateur California wines up against the well-established and renowned French bottles. Although we can’t really blame the Californians for this hesitation. After all, up until this point, American wines were nothing more than a blip on the radar, and the chance of a “big break” coming in the form of a blind tasting at one of the world’s most prestigious wine capitals was slim-to-none (with the emphasis on slim!).
Come May 24, 1976, and a set of 11 judges of mixed French and American origins sat down for a blind taste test to critique French and Californian wines. Judges were asked to rate each wine out of a possible 20 points, with 20 being the highest score. In each category, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the highest rated wine (taken by an average of scores between the 11 judges) was Californian. Talk about a world-class competitive upset. Needless to say, EVERYONE was surprised, and the result was an overwhelming command of respect for the New World American winemakers, especially given the fact that a reporter from TIME Magazine was in attendance. Although the French were not great sports when it came to the loss, which resulted in Spurrier being banned from the French wine tasting tour for an entire year as a punishment for supposedly tarnishing the French wine reputation. As we know now, French wine has been A-OK. So has American wine, however. In fact, many cite this event as the single most important moment in the upward trend in American wine history, which gave California the world-renowned name it has today in the world of wine. The implications go much further than just respect for American wine, however. After the results of the competition hit the mainstream, wine lovers worldwide began to take a more open-minded look at where good wine can be grown, which allowed the industry to expand to the geographic level it is at today.