Spirits of '76

Thirty years ago, the wine world was turned upside down when French experts, in a blind taste test, rated a handful of Napa Valley wines as superior to elite French vintages. The hullabaloo that ensued—several judges, on learning of their own selections, claimed the tasting was biased—put California into vino's big leagues and made the event, known as the Judgment of Paris, the most famous wine tasting in history.

Fast forward three decades to this past May, when Peter Marks, director of wines at COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in the Napa Valley (and one of only 20 masters of wine in the country), organized a commemorative restaging of the tasting, with a simultaneous version in London hosted by Steven Spurrier, the original planner.

Difficulties started early, when some French wine producers refused to provide the wines sampled in the original tasting, because "they didn't want history to repeat itself," Marks explains. Those vintages had to be procured on the open market—a less secure source—and then some California winemakers balked too. "Again, it was, 'What if we lose?' " says Marks. "I argued that people don't remember the losers. Who lost the Super Bowl, for instance? Nobody knows. It's the same with wine tastings."

Reds, Whites, and Blues Marks helped get reluctant winemakers on board by noting that loyal customers would be unlikely to drop a winery for doing poorly in one tasting. But there were other obstacles. The British venue had to be changed six weeks out, because one of the chateaux was unhappy with the original location, and Marks also lost valuable time toying with the idea of a teleconference before ultimately dropping it, because "it was incredibly expensive and required a long lead time."

Details, Details, Details Marks' biggest challenge? Time management. "I pride myself on being detailed, but I was doing my day job and organizing this event," he says. "It became a huge logistical nightmare—thousands of details had to be considered."

Such as? Marks rattles off everything from importing ("You have to deal with the Patriot Act") to scoring ("We had to set up phone conferences with Britain to explain how to use our Excel spreadsheet") to finalizing the guest list ("We had to make very hard decisions"). Marks worked overtime, but the task "took on a life of its own," and with just 10 weeks to go, he hired an outside project manager: "She ended up putting in double the hours she thought she would."

The results were the biggest upset since an American first won the Tour de France. "France's mantra is that their wines age so much better than ours, but California took the top five places—it was amazing," says Marks. The event made just a small profit, he adds, "but it put us on the map. We're a new organization trying to create an identity, and we got a lot of press out of this."