Forty years after their famous taste test victory over the French, California wines still have cred

Plus: Three everyday Californ-I-A & What we're drinking tonight


If you’re into wine, even in a half-assed drink-it-often kind of way, you’ve probably heard of the Judgment Of Paris, the watershed blind tasting held on May 24, 1976, which pitted fancy French Bordeaux and Burgundy against Californian Cabs and Chardonnays. 

The results – top honours awarded by a prestigious tasting panel to Napa’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Cellars Cab Sauv, had Californians beaming even sunnier stoner smiles than usual and the French hanging their heads and grumbling unprintable phrases.

The 40th anniversary of the Old World/New World judgment day over the long weekend got me thinking about the evolution of California wine, not only in terms of quality and style, but also of perception. 

Like all things poured into cups, California’s wines have endured the cruel roller coaster of popularity. 

Californians proved themselves the world’s biggest wine snobs. Once the state’s status was established, influential critic Robert Parker helped heap credibility onto brash wines, and equally brash big money sought anything with “Napa” on the label. Jammy Cabernet Sauvignon and buttery Chardonnay became the twin peaks of California’s wine industry.

John Bonné‘s The New California Wine (Ten Speed, $40), published in 2013, celebrated young, innovative winemakers while taking a jab at what had become the industry’s economic strength and stylistic weakness: lack of subtlety. Overblown high-alcohol wines are now the apex of uncool among the wine cognoscenti, who prefer their mineral, elegant sometimes funky and often natural or biodynamic antitheses. 

To those who generally snub California wine, I say, “How is that possible? There’s just too much of it to resort to sweeping generalizations.”

California’s most stunning asset has always been its variety. The Golden State’s incredibly diverse climate fosters the growth of 100-plus grape varieties. There’s room for overripe oak bombs and mineral Chablis-style stuff.

In the high, sea-breeze-swept hills of Monterey, the Hahn winery grows some excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Inventive natural and biodynamic winemakers and the proliferation of cult varieties like Malavasia (showcased in a pretty pét-nat from Birichino) and Taroldego, produced in small quantities by Oakland’s Urban Legend, are proving that Cali can maintain its cool. 

All we have to worry about in Ontario is getting our hands on more of that sweet, sweet Cali variety.

Everyday Californ-I-A

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Silver Palm Chardonnay

Rating: NNN

Why Loaded with mango, pineapple and vanilla, this straightforward and crushable Cali Chard sports enough acid to prevent it from slipping into ready-to-drink colada territory. It’s a totally acceptable guilty pleasure.

Price $19.95/750 ml

Availability Vintages 441063


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Hahn Pinot Noir Monterey

Rating: NNN

Why Perched in the Santa Lucia Highlands, Hahn’s gorgeous fields of Pinot Noir benefit from cool breezes sweeping up from Monterey Bay. Berries, dried herbs and spices: a wine to drink, not analyze.

Price $19/750 ml

Availability LCBO 226555


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>>> Ironstone Obsession Symphony 

Rating: NNNN

Why A cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris, Symphony was created at UC Davis in the late 40s – a true Cali original. Aromatic, fruity and off-dry, its Muscat parentage is pretty obvious. Sip poolside or with spicy Asian snacks. 

Price $14.95/750 ml

Availability LCBO 295931


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WHAT WE’RE DRINKING TONIGHT

La Crema Chardonnay 2014 

This Chardonnay from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley makes me feel uncharacteristically bourgeois but totally cool with it. Rich and polished, tropical and lemony, this bottle should be presented to a love interest’s manicured suburban mama or brought to a debauched backyard BBQ – either way, I reckon it’ll evaporate pretty damn quick. 

Price $39.95/750 ml

Availability Vintages 67231

drinks@nowtoronto.com | @S_Parns

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