We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


Chasing an autograph….

In France, it is already the 24th of May 2016, and the 40th anniversary of the Judgement of Paris. Why do I care about this? Well, not only do I love wine, but I love a good story.

In 1976, wine shop owner Steven Spurrier hosted a wine tasting that pitted California wines against fine French wines. George Taber was working as a reporter for Time Magazine in Paris at the time. The press release Spurrier sent out in advance was ignored, even by Taber, who’d taken classes from Patricia Gallagher at Spurrier’s Academie du vin. Worried that no one would cover it (after all, before 1976, “the new world did not exist” in Spurrier’s words), they reached out to Taber. He figured that if it wasn’t the slow Monday that he expected, he could always leave the tasting to cover whatever cropped up.

Chardonnay from 6 California wineries were blind-tasted along with 4 white Burgundies, followed by 6 California Cabernet Sauvignon and 4 bottles of Bordeaux. All of the judges were French, including chefs, sommeliers, restauranteurs, winery owners and wine writers. In a shock to the world, California wines won in both white and red.

I’ve had a whirlwind week for a wine-geek. On Monday night, the Smithsonian held a Judgement of Paris event, with wine-tasting. On Wednesday night, there was another on Capitol Hill. Then, when we arrived in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for vacation, we attended a third wine-tasting event.

Taber wrote about the tasting in Time magazine and the day it hit newsstands, wine lovers in America stormed into wine shops, holding the article and asking “Do you have these wines?” It changed the world of wine, giving the French, as Spurrier told Le Monde this year, “un coup de le derrière”, a kick in the ass. So, not only did it announce the ‘arrival’ of California wines, it forced the French to break out of tired, old habits and stilted styles.

So, when I read George Taber’s book about the tasting, I fell in love with the story. A tower of arrogance, American ingenuity, plucky immigrants, can-do attittudes, and a lot of luck, all tied together by one of my favorite things – wine.

In May of 2007, we were in northern California for a wedding and took a few days to tour Napa Valley. So, my trusty copy of Judgement of Paris was tucked securely in the back of my pants when we walked into Chateau Montelena, where Mike Grgich had made the winning Chardonnay for Jim Barrett. As we tasted the wines, which were exemplary, I thought myself a fool for carrying in a book that Jim Barrett didn’t write with the intention of asking if he could sign it. As such, it stayed in my pants and I mentioned nothing to my fiancé or our friend, Tom. Later in the day, after another tasting and lunch, we arrived at Grgich Hills Cellars.

Before we went in, our expectations were not high. Our second tasting had been a terrible disappointment and we’d walked away from two highly rated restaurants to eat lunch at a roadside tacqueria. I was further entrenched in the idea that getting my book signed was a silly idea. We even agreed on a code word that we’d use if someone was tasting and really just wanted to leave. We needn’t have done so, as it wasn’t George Taber’s wordsmithing, but the talent and dedication to his craft that Mike Grgich had practiced over the decades that shone through.

As we stepped in the door, Melissa inhaled the aroma of the tasting room and cellar, knowing we were in the right place. I spied Mike’s trademark beret from across the room and… bolted from the room to GET THAT BOOK! After tasting many wines, we put in an order to be shipped back to Virginia and, since Mike had left for the day by the time I got around to asking for his autograph, they shipped my book back to Virginia with our wines.

On Monday, I took my book along to the Smithsonian, knowing that I could autograph-hunt to my heart’s delight. During the panel discussion, I didn’t feel my normal nervousness when it came time for questions and asked Steven Spurrier, “So, in 1976, in Paris, how available were California, Australia, or wines from outside of France?” He answered, as noted above that in 1976, “the new world did not exist”. Then, we went into the hall and began tasting – with wines from Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills Cellars and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. I was able to get Warren Winiarski (who started Stag’s Leap and made the winning Cabernet Sauvignon) to autograph above his photo. Violet Grgich signed on the same page as her father had. When I asked George Taber to sign on the Prologue page, he asked me why, with a sly smile on his face. We both pointed him out in the photo. When I found Bo Barrett to sign on his father’s photo, that evening, I told him about having the book stuffed in my pants at Montelena and he told me, “You should have just done it! We’d have loved it!”

However, I wasn’t fast enough. Steven Spurrier had already departed before I could find him. I imagined that I’d be doing a global chase just to find him for his autograph. Knowing that his wife, Bella, had taken the only photos of the tasting, I wanted her autograph too!

Then, a friend on Capitol Hill emailed about a similar event happening on Wednesday night. I knew I had to try. Interestingly, it’s the same friend whose wedding we attended in 2007.

Since it was on the Hill, I couldn’t make the 5pm start, arriving around 6:15. I was nervous because I’d had time to think about it and needed to overcome my natural introverted tendencies (I learned last year that I’m an “outgoing introvert”). When I walked into the room, I scanned the crowd, looking for Steven. While I didn’t see him, I did see George. In a fit of courage, I walked up, tapped him on the elbow and asked, like I’d known him for 20 years, “George, do you know if Steven is still here?” Neither he nor Stephen Winiarski knew where he was, but Warren walked up behind me and suggested that he might be out in the lobby. They were all so helpful and delightful.

I walked a step into the lobby, but having just been there, I decided to dive back into the crowd. I rounded a corner and… there was Steven. “Exactly who I was looking for!” I found the right page for his autograph and asked if Odette Kahn was still angry with him for not giving her notes back. She never forgave him. Though Bella was not nearby, she was with him at the event, so I knew I’d still get a shot at her autograph as well. Sure enough, after I’d tasted a few wines, I saw Steven carrying their bags as they headed for the exit. I think she might have been a little surprised, but without her presence, there would have been no photos of the tasting.

Now I have several autographs in the book and will continue hunting for more. For example, as I chatted with Stephen Winiarski, it never occurred to me to have him sign below the photo of he and his sisters at the beginning of Chapter Nine. I have my keepsake, but I will keep improving it.

My question to Spurrier is at about 43:30
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