Keswick's take on the great wine smackdown of 1976


When I noticed on Keswick Hall’s calendar of events that a wine dinner honoring the Judgment of Paris was scheduled for March 18, I quickly reserved a spot, anticipating it with the same eagerness that a frat boy does his annual chili cook-off.  

Click here to see photos from the presentation of the 2010 Governor’s Cup in Richmond. 

In Paris, on May 24, 1976, English wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, organized a blind tasting pitting well-known French wines against then unknown California wines. The intention? To dispel any myths that France’s status as the wine world’s “grand fromage” was compromised and to send California back to their Disneyland winemaking, tail between its legs. But, after California took top scores in both white (Chardonnay) and red (Cabernet Sauvignon), in the collective “mon dieu!” heard around the world France became the nation with a lesson to learn. Being sore losers though, the French whined about their selections being too young or from inferior vintages. They bashed California wines as unable to age, telling Time Magazine reporter, George Taber, who covered the event (and later wrote a book about this legendary tasting), that they would “tire quickly, lose their character, and lose their balance.” When Spurrier spearheaded a recreation of the competition on its 30th anniversary in 2006, the same 10 wines from the original event were blindly tasted and California bested the French again, debunking France’s claim that California wines don’t age well.


Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2008. Harris Teeter. $10.99 v. Chateau Magence 2008. Market Street Wineshop. $10.99

Sonoma Cutrer Russian River Ranches 2007. Special order from your favorite local wine retailer. $19.99 v. “Les Setilles” Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc 2007. Rio Hill Wine & Gourmet. $25.99

Acacia Pinot Noir 2007. Rio Hill Wine & Gourmet. $29.99 v. Domaine Tollot-Beaut 2007. Special order from your favorite local wine retailer. $33

Meritage L de Lyeth 2006. Special order from your favorite local wine retailer. $17.50 v. Chateau Greysac 2005. Tastings of Charlottesville. $19.95


So why, another four years later, does Keswick want to stage a throw-down? Hasn’t California proven its worth by now, or do we just want to gloat over a country (France) whose main marketing efforts are a superiority complex? In the past five decades, France has suffered significant blows in the wine industry—a 50 percent decline in domestic consumption, a 25 percent decline of exportation value, a yearly wine glut of more than 100 million bottles, and now legal scandals implicating some of the biggest names in production for selling wine under mislabeled varietals and origins. Talk about really rubbing their faces in the terroir… 

Former housemates and current bon vivants, Fossett’s sommelier, Richard Hewitt, and former VP of Chateau and Estates, Clement Brown, will serve as the evening’s referees. Both gentlemen are just that—worldly, intelligent, and charming—but with boyish streaks that promise to make things livelier than any chili cook-off, especially if the “French karaoke dude” that Hewitt invited shows up. The idea for the dinner stemmed from the notion that a wine is nothing without food, and cannot be appropriately judged without it. So, unlike at the original event, Keswick’s take will include food (glorious food!) prepared by Fossett’s very own Iron Chef, Craig Hartman, who will plate American classics alongside French classics (New England-style Striped Bass Chowder vs. Coastal France-style Mussel Soup, for example). Guests will taste the competing wines first without food, then with food, and vote for which they prefer in each instance. And, the line-up won’t be limited to Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons this time around—Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir will throw their hats into the ring as well. (Go to for more information and to make reservations.)

Which wines will reign supreme? My vote is for the underdog, even if they do put on sour grapes about the whole debacle. My reason is simple: France is much more considerate about making wines to have with dinner, instead of as dinner.