A Judgement of the Judgement of Paris

Picture by Bella Spurrier

Earlier this year, The Washington Post said the Judgement of Paris “changed the world of wine forever”. National Public Radio said: “In the aftermath of the tasting, new vineyards bloomed around the US (think Oregon, Washington and Virginia) and the world — from Argentina to Australia.” Time quoted Ted Baseler of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley as saying: “It opened up the doors not only to Napa but other regions in the world. That helped other people say ‘Gee, we can too,’ whether it was in New Zealand, Australia, Oregon, Washington, Chile.”

Vineyards did sprout across Australia and other New World countries around this period, picking up speed in the 1980s and 1990s. By the late 1990s, sales of wine from Australia and Chile were overtaking France and Italy in key export markets. But was this a result of the Judgment of Paris?

A market awakes

If you ask professionals in the UK, where Australia grew to take top place in the list of imports, they would say no.

“In my opinion, the Judgment of Paris, which was an interesting exercise, was pure PR puff for posh people,” says Allan Cheesman, who started as a trainee wine buyer for Britain’s then largest supermarket chain Sainsbury’s in 1972. What really revolutionised the wine market, he says, was the introduction of clearly branded, consumer-friendly wines, which were a world away from some of the hard, tannic offerings from traditional markets. One of the first of the New World wines to arrive was, as it happens, from California: Paul Masson. “This commercial wine in carafes arrived in 1980,” says Cheesman. Fruity, good-value wines from Bulgaria were coming in too, joined shortly afterwards by Rioja.

After that came wines from Australia, pioneered by Sainsbury’s, Hazel Murphy, head of the Australian Wine Bureau in London for ten years from 1986, and John Ratcliffe from Oddbins, the iconic wine chain. “I recall going to Australia in the late 1980s and meeting Brian McGuigan [of Wyndham Estate] and Bob Oatley and Chris Hancock from Rosemount,” says Cheesman. “Brian created the Sainsbury’s Bin 937, an Australian Shiraz. We introduced Rosemount and I recall an oaked Chardonnay from the Renmano Coop – all pioneering stuff.”

In the mid-1980s, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand received an enthusiastic critical response, and the long Sauvignon Blanc boom began. “I introduced Oyster Bay into the UK,” says Cheesman, who by 1983 was a Sainsbury’s director. “Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s came Chile. And post-apartheid, South Africa came out of the wilderness and took on the market.” Today, New World wines represent nearly 60% of the UK market.

Hazel Murphy agrees that 1970s Britain was only just beginning to warm to wine. “It started when package holidays kicked off in the 1960s and 1970s and people went overseas to France and Italy and saw people drinking wine.” Until then, says Murphy, Liebfraumilch from Germany and cheap Chianti were popular, alongside French wines. Indeed, Murphy says she was sometimes dismissed when she said she represented Australian wines.

For her, the turning point came with the introduction of the bestselling Australian wine Jacob’s Creek in 1984, as well as the fact that supermarkets began to stock wine. “When I started, Australia was selling 85,000 cases to the UK, and by the end of the 1990s it had become millions,” she says. “I think it was because the wine-producing countries had realised there was an interest in wine in the UK and they could sell wines there.” Another reason was because, “Australian winemakers were prepared to come over and talk to consumers, not just the trade. The people who walked the pavements were Australians.”

Another significant landmark came in 1982, when a Rosemount Chardonnay from Australia’s Hunter Valley was awarded Double Gold at the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC). After winemaker Chris Hancock and owner Robert Oatley attended the awards dinner at the House of Lords, they decided the time was right to export to the UK and held a tasting at Lord’s Cricket Ground. The wine was written up in the newspapers and “caught fire”, says Hancock, adding the timing was good. “London was starting to become a financial centre and the class system was breaking down, so wine wasn’t just about wealthy people,” he says. “Restaurants were opening up and there was a greater variety of food.”

And what about outside the UK? In an interview given 10 years ago, Darren De Bortoli, managing director of Australia’s De Bortoli Wines, said a completely different event changed the course of his company’s export fortunes: The 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl. “Everyone in Europe became paranoid about contamination of their food source,” he said. “A lot of stuff started being imported from outside of Europe, particularly wine, to countries like Sweden.”

California did contribute

Jancis Robinson MW, however, remembers that Californian wines made a splash in London. “From the late 1970s, a whole host of things conjoined to introduce Brits to Californian wine,” she says, including the strength of the pound against the dollar. Robinson says she became honorary secretary of the Zinfandel Club, formed to introduce British wine lovers to fine Californian wine. She says that Australia didn’t really get going until Hazel Murphy came on the scene and “creatively marketed it to the trade and got lots of trade and media out to Australia. It was definitely after the Californian surge, when the US dollar had strengthened.” She adds that it took years before the results of the Judgement of Paris were accepted, although, “I do know that editors were keen on re-runs. I did one for Condé Nast Traveler (US edition) in the early 1980s.”

California did contribute two things to the success of New World wines. The first was Chardonnay. “We were early adopters of Chardonnay in Australia, because we were watching what was happening in California,” says Rosemount’s Hancock. “What’s happening in the States is the hot ticket sooner or later, not just in wine but in music. We could see that Chardonnay was getting a big run in the 1970s in the US and figured it was time to get on that horse.” Hancock says that at the time, Australia’s flagship grape Shiraz was in a slump. “They were drying the grapes and putting them into buns to get rid of them.” So he and Bob Oatley went looking for a block of Chardonnay, and found one, making the wine that won the IWSC from its grapes. The second important element taken from California was its use of varietal labelling, which became widely adopted in the New World.

What changed?

If the immediate effects of the tasting are hard to identify outside the US, there is no denying the impact within the country. New investment flooded into the industry, and the number of wineries exploded.

More importantly, beating the top wines of France gave Californian producers the confidence to price their wines alongside First and Second Growths – and use their marketing skills to persuade US customers to buy them. This not only paved the way for the $100.00 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, but also the readiness of the US market to buy super-premium wines such as Super Tuscans. It’s reasonable to say that the Judgement of Paris helped to make the US the attractive market it is today. Internationally, it created a mini-industry in comparative tastings. But did it inspire the success of other New World producers?

The evidence suggests not.

This article first appeared in Issue 5, 2016 of Meininger’s Wine Business International