A vigorous account of the dare that made connoisseurs think differently about California wines—and that brought great wealth to Golden State vintners.
There are doubtless those who still think that French wine means Montrachet, while California wine means Thunderbird. Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant transplanted to Paris, shared some of that prejudice, but he allowed himself to be pleasantly surprised when journalists and winemakers cajoled him to try some of the new breed of California varietals, which went far beyond what screw-top Paul Masson wines offer. Spurrier organized a blind tasting with a panel made up of France’s best-known wine experts, among them the inspector general of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Board and the editor of the Revue du Vin de France. A superb Chateau Montalena 1973 Chardonnay took top prize, grown in the rich soil of Calistoga, at great remove from the prized terroir of Burgundy or Bordeaux. Still, as Taber notes in his superb disquisition on how wines are made and who has been making them, French and American wines have been sharing tables for generations: It was American rootstock that saved the French wine industry in the 19th century, French grapes that elevated California wines above bathtub plonk. And Taber’s cast of characters is a fascinatingly mixed lot, too: a Chicago classicist who took up winemaking, a Croatian refugee who helped prove that Zinfandel originated in his homeland and the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants who insisted, against the suspicions of their Protestant neighbors, that drinking wine was a good thing. The upshot: a magnificent California wine industry, and a scene much different from that of 1976. Writes Taber: “The dynamic part of the world wine business today is not in Europe, but in the New World—Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.”
An intoxicating indulgence for Sideways fans, and an education for would-be wine sophisticates.