ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
30 years ago in Paris, a publicity stunt for a wine shop started a revolution for the Napa Valley. In 1976, a blind tasting pitted the best wines from France against wines from California. And to everyone's shock, the California wines won. It was the beginning of the end of France's total domination of the wine industry.
This week, 30th anniversary reenactments of the tasting were held in London and in California and, again, the California wines came out on top. Commentator Alan Baker was at the event in the Napa Valley.
ALAN BAKER reporting:
In the early 1970s, Steven Spurrier, a Brit, opened a wine shop that catered to the English-speaking population of Paris. And in a fit of promotional brilliance, Spurrier decided to conduct a head-to-head blind tasting, pitting the best French wines against the best wines from California.
At that point in time, it was pretty easy to define the hierarchy of the wine world. There was France, where great wines were made, and then there was everybody else. At the time, this event was seen as so inconsequential that only a single member of the American press bothered to attend. That was Time Magazine's George Taber, who dubbed the tasting The Judgment of Paris.
Mr. GEORGE TABER (Time magazine): American wines at that point, Californian wines at that point were the Rodney Dangerfield of wines. They didn't get any respect. And that day everything changed. Because it was one, in Paris, two, it was French judges, and three, it was a blind tasting. The whole world changed.
BAKER: The judges, as Taber recalls, were completely confused by which wine came from which country. And ultimately they chose wines from California's Napa Valley as the top wines in both the white and red category.
For Californian winemakers, it was if a bolt of lightning had blasted loose the shackles they didn't even realize they were wearing. The winemaker responsible for the winning red wine at the Paris tasting, a Stag's Leap Cellars cabernet sauvignon, was Warren Winiarski.
Mr. WARREN WINIARSKI (Winemaker, Stag's Leap Cellar): There was the epiphany that broke that invisible circle that we thought we were working in. We knew we could make good wines. Only the French could tell us that we could make great wines.
BAKER: Last week, Taber and Winiarski attended a 30th anniversary reenactment of the tasting at Copia in Napa, California. This time it was another California wine that took the top spot. The 1971 Ridge Montebello cabernet sauvignon got top scores from the panel at Copia.
The 1976 tasting wasn't just a watershed moment for Californian winemakers. It inspired grape growers and winemakers from unknown wine regions in Chile, Spain, Argentina and elsewhere to expand their ambitions. One day they were happy comparing their wines to neighbors up the road and the next, they were dreaming of their own Paris tasting moment when they could topple the reigning dynasty.
Today you can walk into a store and find a $5 bottle of Chilean or Australian wine that's pretty darn tasty and that is a direct result of the invigoration of the global wine industry that happened right after the Paris tasting.
You can still find beautiful traditional French wines, but it's also wonderful to be able to try amazing new wines from Argentina, New Zealand and remote regions of Spain, all because this Brit, Steven Spurrier, wanted to drum up a little business for his Parisian wine shop in 1976.
SIEGEL: Alan Baker covers the wine business in an NPR podcast. You can check it out at our website, NPR.org, along with photos from that original wine tasting in Paris in 1976.