THE JUDGMENT OF MANILA: A BLIND WINE TASTING PROJECT
Updated: Jan 4, 2021
At the start of 2020 a French employee of a regional development bank walked in at iTrulli Italian wine bar in Makati City. Greeted with a glass of Prosecco by the Owner, the buddy declared that he wouldn't drink it because “there is no better wine than French wine”. As it followed, the Owner sympathised with the French guest inexplicably dropped in the wrong wine bar and while showing him the way out, expressed him condolences on the Judgment of Paris…
True story! Wait, aren’t you familiar with the 1976 Paris blind wine tasting known as the Judgment of Paris?
The Judgment of Paris, simply “THE" wine tasting of the 20th Century, was a competition organized in the French capital, at the InterContinental Grand Hotel - near l’Opera - on May 24, 1976 by Steven Spurrier, a wine merchant from United Kingdom.
Nine qualified French judges including representatives from the AOC regulatory board, Institut Oenologique de France (the Wine Institute of France), and a handful of top Parisian restaurant owners and sommeliers, all representing the cream of the French oenology crop, came together to take part in a blind tasting that essentially pit California Chardonnay against white Burgundy and California Cabernet against the top Grands Crus from Bordeaux, two of which were the renowned first growths of Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Haut Brion.
The blind tasting was performed by asking the judges to grade each wine out of 20 points. No specific grading framework was given, leaving the judges free to grade according to their own criteria. Raymond Oliver, one of the nine judges, Chef and owner of Le Grand Véfour, one of Paris' oldest restaurants, picked a white wine, smelled it, tasted it and then said: "Ah, back to France!" Except, it was a Napa Valley Chardonnay...
Only one journalist bothered to show up at the event: George Taber, the American correspondent for Time Magazine in Paris, who ended up getting the biggest story of his career. In fact, to everyone's amazement, the red and white California wines totally beat out their French competitors. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet 1973 from the Napa Valley beat all the Bordeaux first and second growths. The other Napa wine, Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973, defeated the Cote de Beaune Grands and Premiers Crus!
Once known, the results of the tasting were totally shocking! There were undignified scenes, with attempts at last-minute fudging of scores by the French judges...
They included: Pierre Bréjoux, Inspector General of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Board and the author of several books on French wine; Odette Kahn, editor of the Review of French Wine and Food and Wines of France; Aubert de Villaine, co-owner and “Grand Monsieur” of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the most famous winery in all of France, and Christian Vannequé, Head Sommelier at La Tour d’Argent, the famous restaurant in Paris. Odette Kahn unsuccessfully demanded her scorecard back because she wanted to make sure that the world didn't know what her scores were.
Although the French press dishonorably ignored the event for months, the story of the Judgment of Paris swiftly reached every corner of the world. Until May 1976, it was wrongly assumed that “nothing from nowhere” could beat the great wines of France. Instead, 44 years ago, the agonizing myth that only France could make great wine was demolished by American wines! It just presaged the dramatic changes to come in the worldwide wine market: if Californian wines are better than French then certainly Old World Italian, Spanish and German wines could not be considered less! Later on Australian, Argentinian, Chilean and South African wines took also advantage of this change of mentality further reducing the presence of the French wine in shelves around the world.
All this because of a blind wine tasting... How and why?
In a blind tasting the identity of the wine is simply hidden, the ability to see the wine label and the shape of the bottle is denied to the taster thus eliminating any partiality in the tasting setting. Labels, prices and other influences are stripped away; by eliminating any subjective preconceptions, wine tasters are left ONLY with their noses and palates.
I know some Filipino wine lovers - with means – who passionately collect rare and expensive wines, mostly French, and ventured into luxury wine importation business as a serious hobby. These rich friends would never accept, in their wildest - though biased - dreams that, for instance, an Italian Merlot could beat a French Merlot. Thinking of them and capitalising on the Judgment of Paris experience, the idea of having a Judgment of Manila could take shape because - honestly - it is not an impossible project to finalize.
The stuff for a Judgment of Manila could therefore be a blind tasting where “THE” quintessential Merlot, c’est-à-dire the famous Chateau Petrus Pomerol, could face either Masseto Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, or L’Apparita Castello di Ama or even Tua Rita Redigaffi, just to mention only three of the top outstanding Italian Merlots.
The Judges will obviously not be able to see the labels, shape and prices of the bottles. So if they taste a wine with fragrant and intense raspberry fruit and chocolate nuances, its oak so well integrated that they will only feel its presence in the mouth where the wine is opulent but also silky in texture, they will have to sort out which Merlot they are having in their glasses... Good luck to them!
What makes a wine “excellent” is the intensity of its aromas and flavours, is its complexity, balance and structure adding up to an overall impression of unity and completeness. On the other hand, what makes a wine “great” is when, in addition to being excellent, it induces a sense of wonder, stimulates your imagination and promises something more, as if you can never get enough of it...
So, who wants to be on the bench of the next Judgement of Manila?