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With the 40th anniversary celebrations over, Claire Adamson runs a more critical eye over the actual scores.
The tasting’s organizer, Steven Spurrier, awarded the winners on the day by tallying up the scores of each wine and dividing by the number of judges (excluding himself and the American judge, Patricia Gallagher). The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon had the highest total score, its judges’ average just edging out the Château Mouton Rothschild by 0.17 points.
Unfortunately, this method of totting up the scores was about as scientific as finding a correlation between rising sea levels and the sudden proliferation of gritty superhero films.
There are a number of reasons this analysis was flawed – the most important of which was the lack of direction given to the judges. The score card handed out was a far cry from the WSET’s Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine – the judges were simply asked to assign a score of 20 based on the wine’s “eye, nose, mouth, and harmony”.
The lack of control in this scoring method was compounded by suggestions that the judges were trying to score what they thought to be the American wines as lowly as possible, explaining the proliferation of scores below 10 (a rare occurrence in modern wine criticism).
Some critics scored wildly, and some sedately – Spurrier and Raymond Oliver had just five points separating their top and bottom red wines, while Christian Vannequé had a whopping 14-point difference. Interestingly, Gallagher, the only American judge, had the highest average score for all the red wines at 13.9, and gave the Heitz Cellars’ Martha’s Vineyard wine 17 points, the highest individual score for the red wines.
The Stag’s Leap Cabernet scored more points than any of the other wines. However, only three of the 11 judges (including Spurrier) marked it as their top wine. Rather, the Bordeaux second growth Château Montrose was the winner in this interpretation, with five judges (also including Spurrier) giving it their top marks. Château Haut-Brion also did well, equaling Stag’s Leap’s three top scores. Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Ridge’s Monte Bello (the only Californian red from outside Napa) got two top marks apiece, and Léoville-Las Cases was the only wine to have none of the judges award it a top score.
The judges were much more united in their judgement of the white wines – six of the judges gave a top score to the Chateau Montelena, and three to the Chalone. The David Bruce Chardonnay was unanimously judged to be the worst wine of the whole tasting.
Overall, the French wines had an average judges’ score of 12.28, and the American wines had an average of 10.70, giving the old world the victory once again.
However, the American wines scored a particularly satisfying victory in the vehement but ultimately misguided disdain of the old-school French judges. George Taber, a food and wine writer for Time magazine, was the only journalist present at the event, and his brief article revealing the result of the tasting to the American people probably had far more impact on the Californian wine industry than the tasting itself.
Taber was allowed to wander around and noted down the judges’ comments as they tasted, exposing some rather embarrassing bias: “‘Ah, back to France!’ exclaimed [Raymond] Oliver after sipping a 1972 Chardonnay from the Napa Valley,” Taber wrote in his article. “‘That is definitely California. It has no nose,’ said another judge – after downing a Batard-Montrachet ’73.”
After the tasting, the French judging panel – which included famous figures like Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Odette Kahn, the then-editor of La Revue du Vin de France – punished Spurrier for making fools of them by banning him from tasting events for a year.
While the event has been held up as the defining moment for American wine, it was – like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – probably just a catalyst for what was going to happen next anyway. What it has done has shown that wine scores are useless junk numbers that have almost no base in reality, especially when there are multiple scorers involved.
And that blind tasting doesn’t erase blind prejudice, whether justified or not.