For the American wine connoisseur, George Taber’s “Judgment of Paris” reads like a favorite movie. Although we may already know the ending before we have even read the first page, watching the plot unfold provides great enjoyment nonetheless. “Judgment” examines the historic 1976 tasting that pitted a handful of upstart California wines against the greatest wines of France, resulting in a stunning upset that created an instant paradigm shift among the wine community.
As Taber acknowledges at the outset of his book, however, the tasting was not even supposed to be a competition. Nor was it an event that was meant to garner any international publicity. The Paris tasting, as it turns out, was conceived and organized as a mere scrimmage, more a showcase than a showdown. Taber, who was the only journalist present at this mostly informal affair (working for Time magazine), sets the record straight, but weaves a compelling account about the personalities behind this serendipitous event.
“Judgment of Paris” reveals, perhaps most importantly, that the California winemakers, in particular Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski, were underdogs long before their wines first reached French shores. Taber details the gambles and sacrifices that both men made in order follow their passions, which ultimately puts the Bicentennial tasting into greater, more profound perspective. Nowadays, it is easy to assume that most California vinters are tycoons from other industries, but it was not always that way, and Taber’s book reminds us of this fact.
In addition to the historical events leading up to 1976, “Judgment of Paris” also analyzes the ripple effect that the Paris tasting has had over the last 30 years, providing some insight into the recent globalization of wine. But this denouement, which fills the last quarter of the book, lacks the dramatic tension that makes first three quarters of the book so enjoyable. Though Taber’s analysis is informative and well-researched, it simply lacks the individual perspective that makes the first part of the book so unique.