Calgary Wine Life: Co-op Wine & Spirits Judgment of Paris Tasting, Part 1

23 10 2011

Last night I went to the longest and most expensive retail wine tasting of my life (5 hours and $250 respectively):  Co-op Wine and Spirits’ modern day re-enactment of the historic 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, the event that first put California and Napa Valley on the world’s vinous radar screen.  The original Judgment of Paris was a promotional stunt organized by Steve Spurrier, the owner of a well-known Paris wine shop, pitting top French reds from Bordeaux and whites from Burgundy against Napa Cabernets and Chardonnays.  While today that might seem like an alcoholic battle of the titans, 35 years ago California wine had basically no international presence or prestige, and it certainly was not viewed as a wine region whose products could stand up to the aristocracy of France’s top names.  As a result, especially because 9 of the 11 hand-selected judges at the tasting were French (and a 10th, Steve Spurrier himself, was British), the J of P was expected to be an Old World massacre.  10 reds and 10 whites (6 US/4 French, for some reason) were poured blind and the judges rated and ranked them without knowing which wine belonged to which producer/country.  When the scores were tallied, France’s divine right to make the best wine in the world was shattered as California took top prize in both the red (Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet) and white (Chateau Montelena Chardonnay) categories.  One reporter covered the tasting and wrote up the shocking upset in Time Magazine; less than half a century later, out of these humble beginnings, Napa Valley is one of the most famous, critically acclaimed and expensive wine regions on Earth.

Ready to (re)make history?

This was under my chair when I sat down. Call me the Cork Whisperer.

With 4 or 5 exceptions, Co-op managed to source modern-day vintages of all 20 of the original Judgment of Paris wines so that we could recreate the tasting and see if the US would again prevail in 2011.  When it didn’t provide the exact same wine, either because the original producer’s wine was almost impossible to get (understandable) or because it was an exclusive sold by a Co-op competitor (much more questionable given the cost of the tasting), Co-op provided a stylistically-similar, equally iconic example of the relevant region.  We were given an hour to taste through and score the 10 whites and another hour to taste and rank the reds (with no food in between — let’s just say we were glad there was a McDonald’s across the street so we didn’t have to discover the etiquette issues involved with passing out at a premium wine tasting) before the identities of each wine were revealed and the voting results tallied.  I was there with my friend Tom, who is a big reason why I’m now as into wine as I am; as both Napa and Bordeaux hold a cherished place in his heart, he was perfect company for this illustrious event.

In the limited time we had, I took hurried notes on each of the wines and then scored each one out of 20 — of these 20 points, we were instructed to award 3 for sight/appearance, 5 for nose, 7 for palate and 5 for finish.  I’m going to transcribe below my actual (blind) tasting notes from last night and my scores/rankings for each wine, after which I’ll reveal what the wine turned out to be and how the overall group ranked it…I’m sure it will be about 2% as exciting as it was yesterday, but it’s the best I can do.  Without further ado, the 10 J of P white wines, in the order in which I tasted them (I’ll save the reds for tomorrow):

  • White #1 — Tasting Notes:  “Deep yellow, oak predominant, but surprisingly dexterous and elegant on palate.  Think it’s from Cali.  Strong acidity on finish but buttery/honeycomb/toast lingers.  Caramel nose.  The Platonic oaked Chardonnay.”   [My Score:  2.5 Sight + 3.5 Nose + 6 Palate + 3.5 Finish = 15.5/20.  My Ranking:  3rd]The Reveal:  2008 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay — Napa, $59.99.  Final Group Ranking:  8th

    Comments:  The group is crazy — this wine was gorgeous.

  • White #2 — Tasting Notes:  “Gorgeous golden colour.  Surprising green nose — definitely NOT Cali with that nose (honey, iodine, floral).  No overt oak influence, everything in background…mellower?  Older?  One of the Montrachets?  Caramel, brine, red apple, mineral flavours, pure finish.  AWESOME.”  [My Score:  2 Sight + 4 Nose + 6 Palate + 4.5 Finish = 16.5/20.  My Ranking:  2nd]The Reveal:  2006 Louis Jadot 1er Cru Puligny-Montrachet — Burgundy, $102.99.  Final Group Ranking:  6th

    Comments:  I had this wine ranked first until the very end when I swapped it with my runner-up in the dying seconds; it was probably my most memorable wine of the night.  Blind calling it as a Montrachet might be my greatest tasting achievement ever…partly makes up for some of the more embarrassing guesses and comments to come.

  • White #3 — Tasting Notes:  “Marijuana — seriously.  Stinky!  Pungent…Sharpie, shellac, nail polish remover.  Caramel, oak on palate; soapy; not a lot of fruit.  Kind of muddied finish.  Weird.”  [My Score:  1.5 Sight + 2 Nose + 3 Palate + 1.5 Finish = 8/20.  My Ranking:  9th]The Reveal:  2008 Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay — Napa, $53.29.  Final Group Ranking:  10th

    Comments:  This was one of the substitution wines; the 1976 J of P wine it replaced was the Spring Mountain Vineyards Chardonnay.  Bad switch, obviously.

  • White #4 — Tasting Notes:  Quite pale.  Lush and almost sweet; no obvious oak notes on nose.  Tom:  Viognier-like more than Chard.  Is there residual sugar??  Dainty and sweet, with acid rearing on finish.  Surprisingly delicate wine.  Not really “Chardonnay”.  [My Score:  2 Sight + 3 Nose + 3.5 Palate + 3 Finish = 11.5/20.  My Ranking:  7th]The Reveal:  2010 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay — Napa, $35.49.  Final Group Ranking:  5th

    Comments:  Tom decimated this wine for not being varietally correct.  It definitely didn’t show like a premium example of the grape it was supposed to be.  Surprising given what happened with Freemark Abbey’s red…see below.

  • White #5 — Tasting Notes:  Brighter gold.  Prettiest nose of all:  flowers, maple.  Cloying finish.  Butter, oak tannin — palate not as interesting as nose.  [My Score:  2 Sight + 5 Nose + 3 Palate + 2.5 Finish = 12.5/20.  My Ranking:  5th]The Reveal:  2007 Leroy Meursault 1er Cru — Burgundy, $147.99.  Final Group Ranking:  9th

    Comments:  Disappointing showing for the second most expensive white.  Not sure if it was opened too soon or if it was something else.

  • White #6 — Tasting Notes:  “Oxidized?  Tom thinks maybe out of condition?  Not overly aromatic, almost smells like botrytis — caramel/Port notes.  Stronger oak on palate, candied toast, coconut, not too much else.  Bitter finish.”  [My Score:  2 Sight + 1.5 Nose + 2.5 Palate + 1.5 Finish = 7.5/20.  My Ranking:  10th]The Reveal:  2006 Louis Jadot Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru — Burgundy, $289.99.  Final Group Ranking:  7th

    Comments:  That’s right:  we thought that the most expensive and famous wine of the tasting by FAR showed poorly enough that we wondered if something was wrong with it.  It could be that it was going through a dumb phase (which happens to ageworthy wines at times)…or it could be that we’re totally out to lunch.  The group generally shared our opinion though.  Next time you’re looking for a $300 bottle, I’d pass on this one.

  • White #7 — Tasting Notes:  “Lean and mean:  citrus, tart nose, though still oak influence.  But much more lush on palate.  Strongest acidity of all, but comes on late.  Strange combo:  lush then piercing.”  [My Score:  2 Sight + 3 Nose + 4 Palate + 3 Finish = 12/20.  My Ranking:  6th]The Reveal:  2009 Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches — Burgundy, $122.99.  Final Group Ranking:  3rd

    Comments:  I’m surprised this wine was so popular…to me it was a little all over the place.  It would definitely be better in a few years.

  • White #8 — Tasting Notes:  “Darker in colour — older or more oaked?  Darkest of all.  Oak overt on nose, even more on palate.  BIG alcohol — highest?  US.  Classic potent Cali Chard.”  [My Score:  2 Sight + 3 Nose + 4.5 Palate + 3.5 Finish = 13/20.  My Ranking:  4th]The Reveal:  2005 Chalone Vineyard Chardonnay — Napa, $30.29.  Final Group Ranking:  4th

    Comments:  My notes read as critical, but this was a very well-made example of this big, bold New World style of Chardonnay.  And for $30?  Sold.

  • White #9 — Tasting Notes:  “Also dark but not like Wine 8.  More tropical, lingering sweetness; candied pineapple, lots of alcohol, almost unbalanced.  Cali.”  [My Score:  2.5 Sight + 3 Nose + 3.5 Palate + 2 Finish = 11/20.  My Ranking:  8th]The Reveal:  2008 David Bruce Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay — Napa, $63.99.  Final Group Ranking:  2nd

    Comments:  This definitely did not deserve a medal position; a day later all I can remember about it was how boozy it was.  Gotta love democracy.

  • White #10 — Tasting Notes:  “Medium gold.  VERY aromatic/perfumed — potpourri?  Oak present but integrated.  Broad, lush, sweet, pure, huge.  Best of US wines?  Hedonistic and glorious, though not an ideal finish.  Amazing.”  [2.5 Sight + 4.5 Nose + 6.5 Palate + 4 Finish = 17.5/20.  My Ranking:  1st]The Reveal:  2008 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay — Napa, $47.99.  Final Group Ranking:  1st

    Comments:  At the end of the day, it wasn’t even close:  the group voted the Ridge Chardonnay the top white by a wide margin.  The Ridge’s average community score of 16.1/20 was a full point higher than any other wine.  This is ironic because Ridge’s Chardonnay wasn’t part of the original Judgment of Paris; it was a 2011 fill-in for Veedercrest Vineyards’ Chard, which is of such small production that it barely exists anymore.  I initially had scored this wine 2nd overall but bumped it up an extra point at the end to give it the top of the pedestal, (it turns out) vaulting it over a Puligny-Montrachet in the process.

Once the dust had settled, my top 3 Judgment of Paris whites were the Ridge Santa Cruz Chardonnay (17.5/20), the Jadot Puligny-Montrachet (16.5/20) and the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay (15.5/20, and the winner of the 1976 J of P).  I fully expected myself to vote for a Burgundy, but the Ridge was a delicious, powerful, concentrated wine that was drinking perfectly, and it was a deserving winner.  Coming up tomorrow night:  the reds!

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8 responses

24 10 2011
Tyler Philp

Undoubtedly my favourite post on your site to date Peter – Well done!

… and for the record, I’d have flown out for this one too 🙂

24 10 2011
petervetsch

Thanks man, much appreciated!! It was a VERY good night…

24 10 2011
Vine Arts

Awesome! Great notes Peter. Sounds like an amazing experience. I always like to see Ridge Vineyards perform well. Quite possibly my favourite California producer! Can’t wait to read about the reds.

24 10 2011
petervetsch

Totally with you on Ridge, Jesse — I’m a Zinfandel proponent and theirs are second to none. The Santa Cruz Chard was the only wine of the whites that I’ve had before, and the ’05 vintage of it is one of Tom’s all-time favourite wines, period. Check back in a few hours…Monte Bello on tap!

24 10 2011
YYCWine (@yycwine)

Shocked by the results….I would have thought with 1er and Grand cru Leroy, Jadot and Drouhin in the house that these wines would have owned the rest. Instead the run of the mill Ridge cleans up? Odd indeed

24 10 2011
petervetsch

I would have put my money on Burgundy too, and I’m not a huge Cali Chard guy, but the Ridge showed extremely well. Really surprised the Puligny-Montrachet didn’t get more of the popular vote, but the GC Batard was a huge disappointment — tremendously unimpressive, though maybe it was that particular bottle. That’s why they do ’em blind, I guess…

25 10 2011
Tom Booth

I was misquoted! Just kidding… great post, thanks for writing this one up. I have to say that 48 hours later I feel (a) fortunate to have tried all of these wines, (b) further vindicated in my love of the Ridge Santa Cruz Chardonnay, and (c) a little stupid for trashing the 2006 Louis Jadot Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru when I probably just didn’t appreciate many of its great qualities. Not saying it should have won, but when we came back to it later in the night I enjoyed it more and realized it was more complex than I originally thought (which I think your notes reflected better than mine).

25 10 2011
petervetsch

I agree with everything you said other than your beating yourself up about the Jadot Batard GC — it definitely opened up a bit later, but I think our perceptions and conclusions about it during the white portion of the tasting were accurate. It really did not show well. While anyone reading this cold might think we’re nuts to rank a GC Montrachet 10th out of 10, I remember at the time there was no doubt that it was extremely disappointing. The PC Puligny-Montrachet blew it away in terms of fruit, complexity and overall impression…not saying that’ll remain true in 5-10 years, but it was true on Saturday.

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