Book Review: The Judgment of Paris|
"This seems more like an article than a book." It's the classic rejection notice sent to nonfiction book writers. The phrase must have sat in the back of George Taber's mind as he wrote The Judgment of Paris, a book about the defining moment of the modern wine industry: In a 1976 blind tasting, French critics gave first place to upstart California wineries over some of the best Bordeaux and White Burgundies. The tasting paved the way for California's presence in the global wine market and inspired other regions to make wines as good as France's.
Not only would this story be a good article, but that article already exists and a young George Taber wrote it. The results spread quickly when hethe only journalist present at what was supposed to be a casual exploration of California wineswrote about the event for Time magazine. Any wine enthusiast coming into this book knows the climax and has read the oh-so-quotable excerpts. "That is definitely California. It has no nose," says Claude Dubois-Millot as he sips the 1973 Bâtard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon. "Ah, back to France," says Raymond Oliver as he tastes the 1972 Freemark Abbey Charddonay. Reading the book reminds one of going to see Titanic: "Did you hear?" ran a joke at the time, "The ship sinks!"
Taber stretches his article into a book largely by going back in time. The reader gets a detailed look at the Napa wine industry as it approached the crucial event. There's some interesting information here, but the view of Napa life 35 years ago is too drawn out. It feels like the text was padded to fill a contractual obligation. The level of detail and the wooden dialog bog down the story and ring false; does everyone in Napa have a photographic memory, even 35 years later? Taber tries to build drama, but it comes across as desperate filler. I don't know that any book has so closely followed the production of a single wine, as Taber does with a chapter each for the winning Chateau Montelena and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars wines. But the article he wrote 30 years ago deflates the tensionyou know they winas does the simple reality that wine making isn't that dramatic after harvest.
Taber is on surer footing as he describes the aftermath, when he has his own notes to follow. He must have read secondhand and thirdhand accounts with amusement as they embellished the story, adding French and American flags, portraits of Thomas Jefferson, and other trappings of a vinous OK Corral. He says he wrote the book to set the record straight among writers who cribbed his text and judges who felt they had been conned or that Steve Spurrier had rigged the results. He concludes the book with a tour of interesting wine makers around the world. This last part is so loosely coupled with the famous tasting that it just seems like an excuse to travel the world for research.
At times, obvious errors stick out. While it's true that European vines succumbed to American fog, mildew, and disease, they thrived in California not because of our temperate climate but because the phylloxera louse that destroyed European rootstock never made it over the Rockies on its own. Jancis Robinson is assigned the wrong gender at one point. These are small, but they always make one wonder what other errors you simply haven't noticed.
It's not clear how much this book adds to the original article. Much of Napa's history has been told elsewhere. It's a useful read for wine geeks, but you might find yourself skimming over the first chapters.