On May 24, 1976 a wine tasting was staged at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris. A British wine merchant called Steven Spurrier assembled a group of 11 wine trade Brahmins (nine of whom were French) to blind taste some of the finest French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy alongside little-known Californian wines. The American wines cleaned up; a 1973 Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, both from the Napa Valley, outscored their Gallic rivals. The French reeled.
When journalist George M. Taber wrote of the outcome of the tasting in TIME magazine, California's stock as a wine region took flight and New World winemakers everywhere began to walk a little taller. Taber was later to say that he very nearly didn't cover what turned out to be a historic event.
"I was the only journalist who was dumb enough to show up that day," he said. "It was obviously not going to be a very interesting story because, clearly, the French were going to win. So why should anyone write a story about French wines defeating California wines in Paris? It's a dog-bites-man story."
This month the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) organized another tasting – this time at Princeton University, in New Jersey. Like the 1976 Paris tasting, “The Judgment of Princeton" delivered some surprises – although perhaps nothing as immediately scene stealing as judge Odette Kahn (the editor of La Revue du vin de France in 1976) demanding her scorecard back in protest at the results. Kahn was purportedly unhappy when it was revealed that she had rated Californian wines number one and two.
In 1976, it was Californian wines that were pitted against wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux. This time, wines from the Garden State competed against wines from the same French producers who had competed in Paris – although vintages were more recent. The New Jersey wines had been selected earlier by an informal panel of judges, who were not eligible to taste wines in the final competition. Of the nine judges assembled for the Princeton taste-off, three were French, one was a Belgian, and five were American. They were a mix of academics, writers, winemakers and restaurateurs.* The tastings were led by none other than George M. Taber.
While there were many similarities between the 1976 and the Princeton tastings, the latter's results have been calculated and analyzed with greater accuracy, according to organizers. Princeton University's emeritus professor of economics, Richard E. Quandt, conducted a comprehensive statistical evaluation of the results.
It was Quandt who, along with his colleague Orley Ashenfelter, conducted a retrospective statistical analysis of the Judgment of Paris in 1993, in which the pair concluded that the methodology used had been "far from perfect." They also noted that "wine evaluation has been shrouded in snobbishness for so long that it has become a major source of comedy." As well, and perhaps in self-deprecation, they quoted the New Jersey-born writer Fran Lebowitz, who has said, "Intellectuals talk about ideas; ordinary people talk about things; but boring people talk about wine."
According to Quandt and Ashenfelter, averaging the grades allotted to each wine is relatively meaningless, since it gives those judges whose scores are more extreme greater influence over the final results. For example, take two wines: wine A and wine B. Judge Jones awards wine A a score of 20 points, and wine B a score of 4 points – whereas Judge Smith gives wine A a score of 12 points, and B a score of 14 points. Wine A's average score would be 16, and wine B's only 9. Thus, B's score is driven absurdly low, despite Judge Smith preferring this wine, because of Judge Jones's extreme scoring.
As a result, this system (used in the Paris competition) was dispensed with in New Jersey in favor of one recommended by Maynard A. Amerine and Edward B. Roessler in "Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation." The authors' method consists of converting the judges' raw grades into a numerical ranking (1 down to 10) and adding them together. Thus, each judge has the same influence on the competition. The sum of the ranking of each wine is referred to as “points against” and the wine with the fewest points wins. The best possible score for the New Jersey tasting was, accordingly, 9 (since there were nine judges) and the worst was 90.
Interestingly, when Quandt applied this system to the judges' marks in the Judgment of Paris, the results were, in significant ways, different, although the Napa Valley wines would still have triumphed. For example, while Château Mouton Rothschild was placed second in the red wines category according to an averaging of scores, it would have been Château Montrose that was awarded silver if the Amerine and Roessler system had been used.
The Judgment of Princeton results were as follows:
The winner in each category was, therefore, a French wine: Beaune Le Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin 2009 topped the flight of white wines, and Château Mouton Rothschild 2004 was the winner in the reds. However, as New Jersey wine producers would no doubt point out, three of the top four white wines were from their turf.
On the other hand, the French white wine that won, the 2009 Beaune Le Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin, did significantly better than any of its competitors.
The best New Jersey red wine came a respectable third place in the second flight: the 2010 Heritage Estate BDX. However, this does not look as impressive when one reads that, among the red wines, scores for the top 9 were separated by very little, whereas the last-placed wine, Four JG’s Cab Franc 2009, was some distance behind.
This analysis led Karl Storchmann, one of AAWE's vice-presidents, to report that, "Although the winner in each category was a French wine … NJ wines barely differed in their average rank from those of France," and, "if the tasting were repeated, the results would most likely be different." From a statistical point of view, most wines were therefore indistinguishable. "Only the best white and the lowest ranked red were significantly different from other wines."
However, Quandt calculated that there was very little statistical correlation between the judges' preferences in both flights; in other words, they varied considerably. It was, according to Quandt, quite probable that “random chance" could be responsible for any consistency of preference, rather than the inherent merit of the wines – or lack of it.
Perhaps, then, the most significant figures are those relating to price; those for the New Jersey wines were much, much lower, “typically one-third to one-twentieth of their French competitors,” according to Storchmann.
He also noted that both French judges preferred New Jersey red wines over their counterparts from Bordeaux. After the wines’ identity were disclosed the French judges were surprised, but they did not complain. In contrast, several tasters from the United States did not want their wine ratings to be published.
* The nine judges in the Judgment of Princeton were: Jean-Marie Cardebat (professor of economics, Université de Bordeaux); Tyler Colman (DrVino.com); John Foy (wine columnist with The Star-Ledger); Olivier Gergaud (professor of economics, BEM Bordeaux Management School); Robert Hodgson (Fieldbrook Winery, California); Linda Murphy (co-author of "American Wine" and columnist for Decanter); Danièle Meulders (professor of economics, Université Libre de Bruxelles); Jamal Rayyis (Gilbert & Gaillard wine magazine); and Francis Schott (Stage Left Restaurant, New Brunswick).