“The Rise of Napa Valley Wineries” is a new book that documents the Napa Valley’s early days leading up to the famous Paris wine tasting and its golden age aftermath
In the world of popular culture the Judgement of Paris can either associate one with a mythological story or a historical fact. Whereas the former is given the name to symbolize an event in Greek mythology that led to the infamous Trojan War, the latter is a catchy headline attributed to a wine tasting event where Napa Valley wines famously bested the wines of France.
On May 24th, 1976, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman running a wine shop and wine school in Paris, organized a tasting of six top California cabernets and chardonnays to celebrate the American Bicentennial. He added four Bordeaux wines and four white Burgundies to act as markers against which to evaluate the Californians. The judges were among the best tasters in France, and to everyone’s surprise, chose a California wine over the French for both the red and white flights.
The tasting became known as the Judgment of Paris, and ended an era in which it was thought that fine wine came only from France. It was a landmark event that transformed the wine industry, and at the time was reported on by George M. Taber for TIME Magazine – the only journalist who was present for the event. As a matter of fact, in the almost 50 years since that 1976 tasting, the Judgement of Paris has been more closely associated with wine than with Greek mythology.
In a new book titled “The Rise of Napa Valley Wineries – How The Judgement Of Paris Put California Wine On The Map”, author Mark Gudgel brilliantly interweaves the iconic Greek myth into Napa Valley’s narrative. Gudgel poured through hundreds of books, articles, podcasts, YouTube videos, interview notes and historical ledgers to tell this story – the story – about the Napa Valley which traces all the way back to its early settler period in the 1800s and continues through that definitive 1976 moment leading to the present day.
Gudgel points out that up until May of 1976, the picturesque, agrarian Napa Valley was all but unknown to those who didn’t live there. French wine was regarded as the authority when it came to fermented grape juice. Everywhere else was written off as inferior. But when wines from California, and specifically the Napa Valley, defeated those of France, the world was shocked, an industry reawakened, and Napa Valley exploded in a frenzy of growth and development.
Many by now know that George Taber eventually went on to write a famous book, appropriately titled “Judgement of Paris” (2005). It was a means of telling the complete story – a story of the entrepreneurial spirit of the new world conquering the old, repositioning the industry and sparking a golden age for viticulture across the globe. It was a story that he wasn’t afforded to tell when TIME gave him just four paragraphs and buried it at the back of their magazine all those years ago.
Even Hollywood got in the game – or more like got in the way. In 2008, a film titled “Bottle Shock”, starring Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, attempted to chronicle the famous event in a way that can only be described as a dumbed down, inaccurate re-imagining, with cringeworthy attempts at humouring audiences. Perhaps, at the time, a more strait-laced interpretation would have been regarded as less interesting? According to Gudgel’s book, it re-wrote the story almost entirely. It’s obvious Gudgel knows that the film is bad (for the record, it’s downright terrible), but he offers consolation, pointing out that the film did have its purpose, writing that the real value of “Bottle Shock” may not have been as a movie but as the cinematic equivalent of white zinfandel, a vehicle for introducing more people to the world of wine. I’ll accept that.
The Rise of Napa Valley Wineries appropriately provides bookends to Taber’s (accurate) story, with the utmost respect to it, lending significant background and depth to the undeniable significance of that defining moment in wine’s history.
Gudgel writes: Part of what made the Napa Valley so successful and so innovative was the almost complete willingness of the winemakers in Napa to share information with one another. The philosophy was, in essence, that a rising tide lifts all boats. While the French approach to winemaking at the time amounted to covering your answers with your free hand so nobody could copy your results, the Americans openly passed notes and shared answers.
What makes this book feel naturally authentic is not just its obvious sense for historical accuracy – Gudgel isn’t just reporting the facts here. One gets a true feeling that Gudgel is writing from the heart, a love letter to wine, its sense of place, and a monumental time in history.
Gudgel’s interest in wine grew increasingly profound when he and his wife took a brief honeymoon in Napa and Sonoma in 2013, visiting several producers. Shortly thereafter, he began writing a wine blog, which would lead to an established wine writing position. With a decade spent traveling to Napa often and reading every book that he could get his hands on about the people and the place, Gudgel insists that his real inspiration for writing the book is, in fact, the people of Napa Valley and specifically those who were associated with its ultimate claim to fame.
“I love wine, of course, and I regard it as artwork, but as such it is the artists that interest me most,” says Gudgel during our conversation. “I loved getting to know so many of these amazing people and their stories, and I felt honoured to have the chance to chronicle their journey to making Napa what it is today.”
The book really does convey the notion that one simple little blind tasting, and its seemingly impossible results, had such a major ripple effect. An entire culture of wine, food, travel and tourism exploded onto the scene. As the book so keenly identifies: The Napa Valley changed the world, and the world returned the favour.
“I hope everyone comes to share my love for Napa and the people who live here, of course,” says Gudgel. “I think I did a fair job of chronicling some of the struggles, past and present, that help make Napa at once both so complicated and so beautiful. I can’t imagine someone traveling to Napa and not immediately beginning to make plans to return. It’s a uniquely wonderful place and I hope everyone gets to experience it in their lifetime.”
Mark Gudgel’s book is now available through Amazon.
– Cover photo above is of the judges’ table at the Judgement of Paris, which took place in Paris on 24th May 1976.