WINE California Wins

The gap narrows between U.S. and Them.

In 1976 two California wines – Chateau Montelena Char-donnay 1973 and Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 – placed first in a blind tasting of French and California wines held at L’Académie du Vin in Paris. What made the tasting newsworthy was that all the judges were French: Odette Kahn, director of the magazine Revue de Vin de France; Pierre Tari, owner of Chateau Gis-cours vineyard; and Christian Vanneque, head sommelier of Paris’s top-flight restaurant, La Tour d’Argent.

Although Time magazine promptly credited California with the “defeat of all Gaul,” the American victory lost some of its luster when John Movi-us, director of the wine-appreciation courses at UCLA, subjected the score sheets to statistical analysis and discovered that the true rank in both the red and white groupings produced a four-way tie for first place – among one California and three French white wines, and one French and three California red wines. Even the revised results, while not a clear-cut victory, remain a source of pride for California vintners. It was remarkable that the products of wineries less than ten years old could challenge and tie such long-established wines as Meur-sault-Charmes, Batard-Montrachet, Cha-teau Mouton-Rothschild.

At least one wine expert, however, was not satisfied with the results of the Paris tasting or with those of subsequent Franco-American tastings. Dr. Hamilton Mowbray, a retired professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University who now divides his time between making wine in northern Maryland and teaching wine appreciation courses at Washington, D.C.-area colleges, was skeptical. “As a scientist, I felt that these tastings were not held under sufficiently controlled conditions, that the number of tasters was insufficient to provide a meaningful sampling of opinions, and that the final scores were statistically misinterpreted.”

Early last summer, Mowbray conducted his own comparative tasting of French and California wines in a wine-tasting class held at Mount Vernon College. The 40 students who acted as judges were not neophytes. More than half drank wine daily; the rest drank it three to four times a week. Most of the class had been involved with wine, either as a business or hobby, for five to ten years. The average student had taken at least four wine-appreciation courses.

The class met six times, and at each meeting six wines from one varietal group were tasted. Before class, the wines were decanted into unlabeled bottles and each participant tasted them in an assigned random order, to preclude discussion during the tastings. Although Mowbray explained various methods of scoring wines, he left the choice of method up to the individual, requiring only that the wines be ranked first through sixth according to preference and without ties. “I wanted them to think seriously about rank and be forced to make a choice. They soon realized that evaluating wine under controlled conditions isn’t fun – it’s hard work!”

The identities of each evening’s wines were not revealed until every student’s score sheet had been collected. The results were tabulated and the average ranking was announced at the following week’s meeting. In six weeks, California wines won first place in five out of six tastings and California placed second twice. French wines placed second four times.

Mowbray admits that the results surprised him. “When we started, 1 thought the French wines would walk away with it.” Wines were chosen in a way that would avoid stacking the deck in favor of either France or California. Even so, Mowbray says, some tasters were suspicious at first. “A member of the class who is in the wine business and particularly favors French wines called my selections into question after the first two sessions, but he softened his attitude when he discovered he was consistently choosing California wines over French.’’

For his own taste, Mowbray is not in complete agreement with the results of his experiment. “I think California has captured the taste of the general public. This so-called ’median taste’ tends toward blandness. Complexity tends to confuse the average wine drinker, who really wants something straightforward. It’s like saying, ’don’t give me Wagner – give me Tchaikovsky.’ “

Although California’s triumphs may not convince everyone that its premium varietal wines are the equals of their French counterparts, there is little question that their future looks very good. And for the 40 students of Dr. Mow-bray’s class, the California wines they tasted were more than very good – they were the best.

The following wines, included in Dr. Mowbray’s tastings at Mount Vernon College, were available in Dallas at press time. Within categories, they are listed according to their rank in the tastings.

Sauvignon Blanc

*Robert Mondavi Fume Blanc 1975 – Marty’s, $5.39, Centennial, $5.99

Pouilly-Fumé 1974, La Doucette – Sigel’s, $8.49; Red Coleman’s, $8.99


* Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Chenin Riesling 1976 – Centennial $5.99

Chateau St. Jean Alexander Valley Riesling 1976 – Centennial, $5.25

Hugel Alsatian Riesling 1975 – La Cave, $4.25

Pinot Noir

* Davis Bynum Sonoma Pinot Noir 1975 – Marty’s, $6.19

Chambolle-Musigny 1973, Domaine G. Roumiere – Sigel’s, $9.99

Chambolle-Musigny “Les Amoreuses” 1971, Domaine Grivelet – Sigel’s, $9.99

Vosne-Romanée “Les Malconsorts” 1971, B. Grivelet – Marty’s, $10.49

*Z-D Napa-Carneros Pinot Noir 1973 – Marty’s, $7.99

Chenin Blanc

*Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Chenin Blanc 1976 – Marty’s, $4.19 Centennial, $4.49

Vouvray 1975, Wildman & Sons – Sigel’s, $3.59

Vouvray 1975, Domaine des Bibaudières – Centennial, $3.49


*Veedercrest Alexander Valley Chardonnay 1976 – Red Coleman’s, $8.99

*Mayacamas Napa Mountain Chardonnay 1975 – Marty’s, $12.89

*Burgess Winery Lake Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay – Marty’s, $8.39

Cabernet Sauvignon

Chateau Montrose (St. Estèphe) 1970 – Marty’s, $13.59; Sigel’s, $8.99

*Stag’s Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Sigel’s, $8.95


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