Of all major wine grapes, it is the most capable in delivering stunning results from across a wide range of climates. From the cold Chablis in northern France to temperate Cote d’Or in Central France to warmer climate in Sonoma to the heat of Napa. Ever since the Judgment of Paris in 1976, when Napa Valley’s own Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay reigned supreme in a blind tasting against France’s crème de la crème, California Chardonnay has enjoyed blockbuster status in the United States, and has spurred planting and popularity across the new world. A recent Hollywood flick Bottle Shock helped distill (or dilute?) the momentous Judgment of Paris story for the masses rekindling the American Chardonnay pride at least in some. For years after 1976, the debate about the Judgment of Paris continued, and occasionally small groups of devoted wine lovers have conducted a sanity check. I have documented one such event – the Judgment at Ross Bott - recently run by the Ross Bott wine tasting group in Palo Alto, where California Chardonnays of Kistler, considered by most the penultimate expression of the California style, commanding cult status and commensurate price tags, were pinned against 1er Cru Chablis, some of the best representations of the cooler and leaner Chardonnay style that most wine geeks I know consider superior to California. Well, to make the long story short, the Ross Bott group preferred Kistlers (!!!), and when the tasting concluded, a debate commenced. Arguments from the Francophile camp abounded: “how can such different styles be comparable?!”, “why Grand Cru level (a class above 1er Cru) was not used?!”; “the best of French wines was corked!”, “oh, was the group composition skewed toward California palates?!”, etc, etc, etc.
Until Alex Bernardo of Vineyard Gate Wine Sellers heard about that, and decided to put an end to the debate. Thus, the Judgment of Green Hills was born. This is the account of what transpired.
One comfortable night at the start of spring 2009, a group of 20 wine aficionados gathered in an old country club of Green Hills in Millbrae, California, a small town along highway 101 just minutes away from San Francisco airport. They responded to a call of duty, a request on behalf of Vineyard Gate to a small exclusive brigade of close friends, whose palates and judgment could be trusted in a matter as important as this. 20 people, 10 per table, how can criticisms of the Ross Bott tasting be addressed?
After careful consideration, these were the rules… It was to be top California Chardonnay (not just Kistler) against top White Burgundy (not just 1er Cru Chablis), tasted blind. Let the best wine win! 19 wines, 1 corked, gave each table an even split of 9 bottles to rank. The bottles were carefully divided such that each table received balanced representation of regions and statures. Guests were to rank their top 5 only, while a crab dinner was served to allow everyone to assess wines both with and without the food.
A1: Marcassin 1998 estate
B1: Peter Michael Mont Plaisir 2001
C1: William Fevre Chablis Bougros Grand Cru 2004
D1: Louis Jadot Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatieres 1er Cru 1999
E1: Kistler Dutton Ranch 1998
F1: Raveneau Chablis Butteaux 1er Cru 2001
G1: Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault-Goutte d'Or 1er Cru 1997
H1: William Fevre Chablis Le Clos Grand Cru 2002
I1: Kister McCrea 1998
A2: Marcassin 2004
B2: Walter Hansel Russian River Valley 2002
C2: William Fevre Chablis Bougros Grand Cru 2004
D2: Louis Jadot, Domaine du Duc de Magenta, Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Clos de la Garenne Monopole 2004
E2: Kistler 1998 Hyde
F2: Domaine Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet "Les Combettes" 1er Cru 1990
G2: Jean-Claude Belland Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 1996
H2: Domaine de la Vougeraie, Vougeot Clos du Prieuré Blanc Monopole 2005
I2: Kistler Durrell 1998
J2: Mount Eden 2005 (moved to table 1 to replace the corked D1)
After 2.5 hours of drinking, eating, and discussing, the votes piled in and the final tally was taken. Here is how the chips fell from most preferred (5 points per vote) to the least (1 point per vote).
So, what did we get?
Table 1 overwhelmingly preferred Marcassin – California – it wasn’t even close!!! Then two Chablis, then two more California. Granted, one of their white Burgundies was corked and had to be replaced by another California.
Table 2 chose French for their top 5, with the top two being far ahead of the rest of the pack.
The groups tasted an even split of 9 California and 9 French (excluding the corked wine which one guest ranked as the #4! – that score was discarded). If you look at it purely based on scores, the Marcassin earned the highest score of 31. The white Burgundy Grand Cru was a close second with 30 points, followed by 5 more white burgundies before the next California. More people at table 2 were united around the top choice (4 top votes) than on table 1 (3 top votes).
The total score for California was A1+J1+I1+B1+E1+E2+B2+A2+I2 = 31+18+12+12+7+9+7+6+6=108
The total score for France was F1+C1+G1+H1+G2+F2+H2+C2+D2=24+21+30+28+22+21+18=164
It is noteworthy to mention that on that night the 3 wine professionals present – two winemakers Eric Lecours and Loren Tayerle, and the Vineyard Gate’s founder Alex Bernardo – chose William Fevre “Bougros” 2004 Grand Cru Chablis as their top choice!
We appreciate and acknowledge all guests who brought the gems from their cellars in order to make this night memorable and meaningful.
Based on the combined scores, it wasn’t even close – France handily beat out California, which was further evidenced by the 4 Kistlers sitting half-unfinished on the table at the end. Yet, the fact remains – the highest scoring wine was the ’98 Marcassin Estate bottling, just as in 1976 Chateau Montelena reigned supreme atop of pedigreed array of French crus. Does the Judgment of Green Hills help close the debate, or just open it ever wider? As answers lead to more questions, I look forward to being an eyewitness to future judgements and debates that prove the process itself to be far more delightful than any possible final outcome.