“The Judgement of Paris” – what it showed us
09 December 2016
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Well, thanks for joining me for another episode of Old Mutual Live Wine edition. I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams . Now a couple of months back I had lunch with Ken Forrester of Ken Forrester Wines. We were talking about wines and we’d tasted a gorgeous Napa Valley wine that tingled in the mouth. Ken asked if I knew about the book, “The Judgement of Paris”?
Well I didn’t, but I was thinking about Napoleon or possibly the World War II invasion of Paris, but I was so wrong. This year marks the 40th anniversary of something called ‘The Judgement of Paris’ and Ken Forrester joins me to tell us what it was all about. So Ken, it’s over to you because I was absolutely enthralled with your story.
Ken Forrester: Oh Jen, you know it was quite apparent to well, some winemakers in the United States that they had started making some very interesting wines. Their problem was to build awareness and to create awareness that their wines were as good if not better if one dare be so bold as anything produced in the world. They had a discussion; they got together and had some discussions.
Eventually enlisted the support of Steven Sparrier and Stephen Sparrier really, really well-respected, well-known French wine judge. Really of some really good standing amongst wine communities and the public as well. Stephen Sparrier duly arranged for this competition to take place in Paris with judges, a judging panel.
It was on reflection, more heavy weighted towards France than to the New World, to California. A range of Californian wines and the very best French wines of the day were duly presented. Set-up in a taste off showdown and to everybody’s shock, horror, and dismay, the Californian wines came in on top.
The Californian wines trumped the French wines and it was literally a watershed event, a watershed moment. Because the Americans immediately decided if that was the case, if their wines were judged blind at a tasting by a very, very proficient group of judges who were familiar and wine judges per se. That were qualified under the guidance of Stephen Sparrier, then their wines should be worth at least as much, if not more than those top vaunted, well-respected French wines. The Americans duly priced their wines accordingly, went back to the United States and they’ve never ever looked back.
We look today at a bottle of Napa Cabernet at $100 and blanch at the conversion rate or we look at some of the top Napa Cab’s at $700, $800, $900. We go “How can this be possible?” Well there it is. It’s utterly possible and it’s a completely marketable success.
What is really, really interesting, is people like Mike Grgich, who was the original winemaker, he’d come from, oh let me get this right, Serbia. He’d come into the United States and he was the winemaker, he made the Chardonnay at Chateau Montelana.
Today Mike Burbidge is part of a team, Grgich Hills is the name of the winery. Grgich Hills doesn’t reflect the topography at all, it’s not about its geography. It’s too much Mike Grgich and Mike Hills and they had a joint JB or a join effort, a joint venture in Napa. To this day he makes one of the best Chardonnays for my money coming out of Napa. You know it’s just, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to see that they had the confidence to take on the very best in the world.
Once they got the result of that they actually had the confidence to then say “We’re going to back this all the way to the finals”, put up their prices, put their wines into the marketplace. To this day we have a resounding success on international markets with these wines.
Making the French go red
JCW: The French did not like this and it, and it was very low key initially wasn’t it. Then words started getting out and the French just got crosser, and crosser, and crosser. It was not particularly amiable.
KF: It wasn’t amiable and the other thing was, was that it was, you know it was, it was not terribly well-supported by the press on the day. I mean on the day the only one member of the press that was present was a fellow called George Taber who at the time was the Time Magazine. I think I don’t know exactly his title, Bureau Head, I’m not sure what he was.
But he was based in Paris, seconded to Paris or running Time Magazine, the Paris office for Time Magazine. He popped along literally to go and see what was going on. I had the pleasure of meeting the man and getting his story and he actually, he wrote the book eventually. But the only press that this event got initially was in Time Magazine. Was a chapter in Time Magazine about this blind tasting that revolutionised the California Wine Industry and essentially the wine world as we know it.
JCW: It’s got implications. I suppose looking at it today, 40 years on, it’s got implications for other countries, New World countries.
KF: That’s the point, isn’t it? It did revolutionise the worldwide wine industry. Because it suddenly not cast in dust that the French were the only wine producers of the world, but it certainly opened the field up to say “There’s more than one wine-producing region, more than one wine-producing country”. That you know the wine or the vine, this Mediterranean weed if you like, which grows incredibly.
I mean if we, at Elsenburg here in Stellenbosch at the institute, they had one vine in the centre of a canopy which would cover 100 square metres every year, 10 metres by 10 metres. One single vine growing up the fence of this canopy could shade 100 square metres. They really are vigorous plants and to see them thriving in soils that particularly suit the grape variety. Then to have the simple empathy of the winemakers who understand to get the very, very best from that crop needn’t be limited to one geographical place.
JCW: So is there reluctant acceptance on the part of the French winemakers and estate owners and everything that at that stage. 40 years ago the Napa Valley wines were better than the Burgundy’s that they put up?
Creating an opportunity for the rest of the world
KF: Well you see, initially it was almost considered an anomaly. I mean it was like “No, no, no, we can’t believe this result, how can that be possible?” Then slowly it started to, once the Californians backed their wines and said “Okay, fine you want to be, we beat all the wines Burgundy’s imitation. Therefore, our pricing is right, Burgundy pricing and it’s worth that. Because it tastes better than that, check it out yourself” and they stuck to their guns. Literally in doing so produced an entirely new opportunity for the wine world.
JCW: I can remember saying to you “But then why don’t we do something similar with South African wines or leave it for another five years and then do it?” Maybe we do Southern Hemisphere wines and put them against the legendary wines of France, both the whites and the reds. You said, “Well, that would be heaven” but it’s not likely to happen, is it?
KF: It’s probably not likely to happen. Also I think the fact that this was a ground-breaking event to go and copy the blend. It doesn’t have the impact of the first man who landed on the moon. You know they made this possible, they broke that barrier. The names, I mean were incredible, I mean really incredible.
We’re dealing with a Chateau Montelana Cab, we’re dealing with a Marceau Champs, Challain Vineyards from Montreux County, Spring Mountain from Napa Valley, Beau and Feu de Mouchette, Freemark Abbey, de Tao Moriches, Paolini Moriches, David Bruce out at Santa Cruz Mountains.
It was just an incredible match of the top names, which today are still the top names. In the red wines it was Freemark Abbey, Height sellers, Martha’s Vineyards. I mean just still an iconic vineyard, Clea DuVall, which is still, Maya Tamers. In Maya Tamers, an amazing, Chateau L’Escadre Ridge.
Only three or four weeks ago Paul Draper from Ridge retired, and the Ridge is still one of the most vaunted Californian wineries. Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Montrose, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Stags Leap, these are all iconic names. Having gone out and beaten the best of France, they were unashamed, totally unbashful about saying “We are as good if not better”. They believed in themselves and backed themselves.
JCW: So really it had nothing to do with Napoleon, nothing to do with the invasion of France or whatever, but “The Judgement of Paris”. Is that book still around, do you think?
KF: The book is still around. I’m sure you could get it on Amazon for example, I’m sure you could order it on Amazon. George Taber is a remarkably, he’s a journalist, almost one, I was almost reminded in a way of John Platter.
This incredible mind sitting quietly behind a pair of glasses and you just know that what you’re seeing is completely different what’s going on behind in his mind. It’s like watching a duck paddling across the pond; it all looks terribly serene unless you look underneath.
Where you can and can’t market foreign wine
JCW: So the next step is to ask why is it that we do import wines from France and from Germany and from Italy and they go, you know, from north to south but we don’t. I don’t know too many people who do stock some of the premier Napa Valley wines or American wines?
KF: Well, the hardest thing in any wine growing, wine producing region is to sell foreign wine. I can tell you that as a wine producer. But for me to sell wine in France is very, very difficult. For me to sell my wine in Italy, very difficult. I go to America, on the East Coast where there’s very little wine production sporadic at best, it’s not too difficult. If I go to the West Coast in California is very difficult. Once again and American wines, I think the price point for us, for South Africans has always almost begged belief.
We’ve almost kind of gone, “Wow” and you know if you think about it in going back how dare I say this, but in 1973 there were $3 to R1. So you wouldn’t mind paying R30 for a bottle of wine. Today that $100 bottle of wine is now R1500 almost. We’re kind of a little shy, a little gun shy about spending that sort of money on a bottle of wine, so it’s incredibly…
The other thing is South African wines, a long history of the co-ops and the wholesalers, the old Stellenbosch wineries and distiller’s corporations and union wines. South African wines were sold and delivered on the back of trucks that were paid for by Bols Brandy and Bells Whisky and Smirnoff Vodka to be quite blunt.
Those wines were never really charged at the full distribution cost of what it really cost. But the concept was “Oh we’ve got a truck, it’s going out, put wine on it. It doesn’t cost us for the distribution, it’s already paid for”. Essentially South African wine trades at a discount, even in today’s world.
South Africans whether they want to believe it or not are able to buy the very best value in wines in the world, I think. I mean to go out and spend R100 on a bottle of wine in this country you can do very, very well for yourself. That same R100 translated into Pounds or Dollars, does not guarantee you drinkable wine.
Pricing wines in South Africa
JCW: So I mean Michael Fridjhon himself was ratting about this and just saying that unless we get used to paying higher prices for our wine, we are not going to have many wine farmers left. You yourself have just brought out a wine that is not far off R700 a bottle.
KF: Well our wines, currently we just brought out a wine which is selling in duty free retailing at R1250 a bottle and flying off the shelves, I’m happy to say.
JCW: Which one was that, Ken?
KF: That’s the Dirty Little Secret.
JCW: The Dirty Little Secret, yes.
KF: You know I just think that we’re very, very fortunate in South Africa to have this opportunity to drink wines which are so very, very good and the market holds the price. I mean it’s just as soon as you go over a price point, that the public really think that they’re having a tough time. They’re just unaware that in Australia, in New Zealand, if you go to a bottle store in Australia you really have to spend $25 to $30 to get nice wine. There’s R300 without blinking an eyelid.
Now if we had to spend R300 to buy a bottle of average wine, I mean we’d be shocked and rightly so. But the rest of the world is quite used to that. But the kind of benchmark translates something as simple. Like if you use one of our brands, our entry level Chenin Blanc translated into Dollars retails on the shelf at $10, $11, $12 depending on where you are in US. It sells out of our tasting room at R50 a bottle and yet you have to pay $12, R180 a bottle.
In the UK it trades at £8 or £9 a bottle, so you’re R180 a bottle in the UK. That’s just when you normalise the… you take the transport costs, you pay the duties, you add the margin for the distributor, the margin for the retailer and suddenly that’s a normal price, that’s not an abnormal price. That’s what entry level wines cost. Now if we were faced with the thought that entry level wines in this country were R180 a bottle we’d all be badly horrified. Would the industry survive? I ask?
JCW: Well I suppose it is exactly the same thing that’s happened to electricity. We’ve had it so cheap for so long that we resent any, I mean any increase in electricity. People moan and bemoan and go on strike and burn tyres and do everything because we get so cross about it. But the reality is that there has to be a slow catch up or else there’s no electricity.
KF: You see I’ve often pondered the thought that this kind of array of wine competition plethora if you like, the wine competitions in this country. What if we had a wine competition or we had an overriding rule for wine competitions, which wine competitions would be brave enough to say “We’re not judging any wines under R100 a bottle”. Because then suddenly you’re looking at a completely different class of wine.
You’ve already filtered if you like, 50% of the market. To Michael Fridjhon’s point of we’re not paying enough to sustain the industry, the reality is in a R30, R40, R50 bottle of wine, the price that you’re paying for grapes is not enough to sustain the replanting of grapes on that same vineyard for the next 20 years. I can guarantee you that those vineyards that those wines are coming from now will not be vineyards in 20 years’ time.
If for example, a judging competition were to say “In order to protect the farmers, we’re not judging anything under R100 a bottle, so if you’re making wine it has to be at R100 a bottle”. That way at least the farmer’s getting sufficient, the primary producer is getting paid enough to ensure the sustainability and longevity of this industry.
A Romanée-Conti doesn’t come cheap
JCW: Then coming back to our starting point and “The Judgement of Paris”, a Romanée-Conti doesn’t come cheap, those vineyards don’t come cheap.
JCW: The horses walking through the vineyards and whatever, they do not come cheap. So you’re making the same point that you’ve got to have quality in order to make quality.
KF: Yes, no I’m afraid that’s the reality.
JCW: Ken, what an absorbing discussion. No, no, no I fully understand and maybe we can explore that a little bit more on another occasion. Ken Forrester, thank you so much.
KF: Yes, the interesting thing is that when you look at the prices at the time, you know this is 40 years ago. If you have a look at the Stag’s Leap Cabernet, was selling at $7.49 in Chicago, in a retail store. In the same store the wine which it beat, the Chateau Mouton Rothschild was selling for $25.
JCW: Yes, so it says everything.
JCW: Join us again for another episode of Old Mutual Live Wine Edition on mobile, on digital, on demand. Ken, thank you really. I mean really we could have gone on for a long time.
KF: Thanks Jen, thanks so much and let’s have a –
JCW: Really appreciate it.
KF: Let’s not go to the “Judgement of Parys”, but I think we might do a “Judgement of Stellenbosch” or something like that.
JCW: Well I think that would be such fun and I would love to be there.
JCW: All right, darling.
KF: Take care.
JCW: You take care.
KF: Have a lovely day, cheers, bye now.
JCW: Thanks, bye-bye.