The Judgement of Napa, Part I

Prohibition strikes. | Lou Phillips

For fans of history, theater and theatrics, as well as wine, May 16 will be a date to note. On that day Clos du Val in Napa Valley will feature a re-creation of when Napa Valley — and by extension all of California — became a player in the world of fine wine. The original main event — that was expected to be a ripple, but turned out to be a tidal wave that still rages — was The Judgement of Paris on May 24, 1976.

California’s wine industry rose on the back of immigrants who brought their love of wine and European grape varieties that, to this day, make the grand wines we know and love.

To appreciate the original tasting/judgement and its monumental effects takes some context. There are some fascinating wine history stories along the way, so let’s take our time. In Part I, I will set the backstory. Part II covers the original judgement and its immediate aftershocks. In Part III, I will discuss the ongoing and future effects.

1906 San Francisco fire wounds the California wine industry. | Lou Phillips

So, let’s fire up the time machine and go back to the late 1800s when California first challenged France as the source of all things exceptional in the world of fine wine.

Beaulieu Vineyards, one of the survivors. | Lou Phillips

California’s wine industry rose on the back of immigrants who brought their love of wine and European grape varieties that, to this day, make the grand wines we know and love. Production was substantial and these wines competed successfully head to head in competitions with France’s best; California was well on its way to glory and riches. Then 1906 came along and the Achille’s heel of the California wine industry came to light. You see, although the grapes were mostly grown in Napa, Sonoma and central California, some of the winemaking, and almost all of the storage, was in San Francisco. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed just about every drop of wine and the vast majority of wineries went bankrupt. And if that wasn’t enough, as the surviving wineries were getting back on their feet, along came Prohibition. Only a few wineries that could claim they made sacramental wine, stayed afloat.

After Prohibition, even those few had trouble making quality wine for several years. Worse, the demand for wine was negligible because Americans has acquired a taste for the bootlegged and moonshine spirits.

By the 1970s Napa was somewhat back on its feet and again producing quality wine. Enter one Steven Spurrier, who had a wine shop and school in Paris and had made a tasting trip to Napa where he expected the worst — but found excellence.

Being quite the marketer, Spurrier cooked up the original Judgement Day, which indeed turned out to be a shot heard ‘round the world.

And as the curtain falls on Act One, rest assured Act Two is when the fun really starts. Read Part II in the next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.