When it comes to charity wine events, few have the caché of the Naples Winter Wine Festival. Widely considered one of the most successful in the U.S., the event is held every January at the tony Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort on Florida’s balmy west coast. Well-heeled, philanthropically minded patrons pay $10,000 per couple to attend a weekend of spectacular food and wine events featuring the industry’s brightest stars and most revered legends. This glamorous event is held for a wonderful cause and, since its inception in 2001, has raised over $146 million for the Naples Children and Education Foundation which has benefited over 40 local children’s charities.
The 2016 Naples Winter Wine Festival kicked off a weekend of vinous revelry with a very special tasting and luncheon commemorating the 40th anniversary of The Judgment of Paris, a wine tasting held in Paris in 1976 which forever changed the wine world. The tasting pitted a selection of France’s most highly regarded wines against a selection of American wines which, at the time, weren’t well-known outside of California’s west coast. In a surprising defeat, the American wines trounced the French, forever establishing the U.S. as a vinous force to be reckoned with.
The Vintage Cellar, a Celebration of The Judgment of Paris featured a retrospective tasting of vintages of the fêted American wines (the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Estate Cabernet Sauvignon) followed by a luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort’s restaurant, Lemonía. The tasting was moderated by the men who were involved in this historic event 40 years ago: Steven Spurrier, event organizer and proprietor of L’Academie du Vin; Bo Barrett, CEO and Master winemaker of Chateau Montelena; Ted Baseler President and CEO of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars; and George Taber, editor for Time Magazine who’s coverage of the event brought it to national attention. The service of these special wines was executed by a bevy of Master Sommeliers and many notable wine industry names were in attendance including Emily and Paul Michael of Peter Michael Winery, the Festival’s 2016 Honored Vintner; Jean-Charles Boisset of the Boisset Collection; and Violet Grgich of Grgich Hills Estate who’s father, Mike Grgich, was the winemaker for Chateau Montelena at the time of the tasting and crafted the legendary winning Chardonnay.
The day of the Naples tasting, Englishman Steven Spurrier, nattily dressed in a cream-colored linen suit with pink shirt and matching pocket square, kicked off the talk by recounting his introduction to the world of wine and sharing some very memorable experiences in the vineyards and cellars of Spain, Germany, France and Portugal. Spurrier and his wife eventually settled in Paris where they purchased a wine shop, “I was the first…to sell the red wines of Guigal, Chateau Beaucastel and Chateau Rayas. I was constantly on the lookout for wines that spoke firmly of where they came from.” He also began hosting a variety of wine tastings featuring new producers which is where the idea for the Paris tasting came from, “The plan was to select wines only from the newish, boutique wineries to show the tasters the cutting edge of California.” Spurrier never suspected how the results would forever impact the wine world. He also voiced his disdain for a certain film made about the tasting (for our review of Bottle Shock, please click here). He was, however, quite excited about another film slated for release in July 2017 entitled The Judgment of Paris which will strive to provide a more accurate account of the details surrounding the event (please click here for a video of Spurrier’s talk).
Next, the dapper and distinguished George Taber spoke, impressing upon us how close he’d come to missing the tasting altogether. Even when he arrived, it wasn’t until he was given a score card featuring the names and order of the wines during the tasting and listening to the judges’ comments (the judges tasted the wines blind) that he realized he had a story, “I heard one of the French judges exclaim while sampling a wine, ‘Ah, the majesty of France’ but when I looked at the score card I could see he was drinking the Freemark Abbey Cabernet from California!” Taber went on to exclaim, “[the tasting] was a turning point in California wine…it definitely brought up everybody’s game.”
The affable Bo Barrett expounded on the importance of the tasting following the ravages of Prohibition on the California wine industry, “[the judgment of Paris] was the nail in the coffin of Prohibition.” On his own contribution, “I was just a soldier, twenty years old and there were only three of us working in the cellar making just $3.15 an hour! It was the right wine at the right place on the right day…but we had the dream.” On his legacy, “like a mason, I look back on my work which has stood the test of time and I’m proud of that.” A tasting of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay from the 1992, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2008 vintages (all poured from magnums) revealed wines which, across the board, had aged with incredible grace that were still fresh and lively with ample fruit and layers of delicious flavor. Older vintages expressed concentrated notes of baked apple, butterscotch and spice while the younger wines were rife with lemon verbena, apple tart and spiced pear balanced by a lovely minerality.
While not a part of the actual 1976 event, Ted Baseler, President and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates current owner of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, has enjoyed an esteemed thirty year career in the wine industry. The bottle which won the competition was then-owner Warren Winiarski’s first vintage and it was only the vineyard’s second leaf – very young by vineyard standards! Baseler proudly informed us a bottle of the winning Cabernet, the 1973 Stag’s Leap S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC as one of the “101 Objects that Made America”(don’t worry, the winning Chateau Montelena Chardonnay is there too). Our special tasting of the Estate S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon included the 1983, 1993, 1998, 2008 and 2012 vintages and revealed wines which had definitely stood the test of time. The older vintages still possessed plenty of tannins and acid while dried fruits such as currant and cherry were accompanied by notes of earth, feu de bois, cocoa and spice. Conversely, the younger 2008 and 2012 vintages exhibited gorgeous layers of lush, ripe dark fruit, dark chocolate and coffee which were delightfully balanced and elegant.
A Q&A session at the end of the tasting revealed even more interesting insights from our speakers. When asked what has changed most in winemaking since 1976, Barrett replied, “Fruit handling and access to better cultivars are probably the biggest changes for us since then. The grapes picked for the Chardonnay that won the tasting were picked mid-afternoon and now we realize the importance of picking at night.” When asked about the upcoming film, The Judgment of Paris set to film this Summer, Baseler added, “the new film will tell the story of the of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, much like Bottle Shock focused on the Barretts and Chateau Montelena. It should be released in mid-2017.” Someone also asked why the French judges at the tasting were blindsided by the results to which Spurrier responded, “At the time of the tasting the judges knew the wines of their particular regions and weren’t familiar with US wines. It was almost a social event for them.” Spurrier also cheekily added, “You could also sum it up in one sentence, ‘How a Croat and a Pole made history thanks to an Englishman!'”
This very special event was the perfect start to yet another successful weekend in Naples for a wonderful cause. IN addition to the tasting and luncheon, the festival also featured sixteen vintner dinners held in elegant private homes, the legendary Great Expectations auction and a Celebration Brunch. For more information on the Naples Winter Wine Festival please click here.
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