THE JUDGMENT of Ottawa will not make wine history as did the Judgment of Paris, but it does provide important backup data, for again the top wines of California have outranked France's top bordeaux in a blind tasting. The historic Paris tasting, held in 1976, ranked 1973 Stag's Leap Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon first in the bi-national competition. The Ottawa tasting, staged by the Canadian branch of the Society for American Wines two weeks ago, ranked five of its seven California wines over all six 1970 bordeaux (five first growth and one second growth), and reinforced the judgment the same evening when members of the society at a reception picked only one bordeaux -- 1970 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild -- among the top four wines in a blind tasting.
Five of the California wines, all cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley, were from the 1974 vintage; the Robert Mondavi Reserve was 1975, and the Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve was tasted in the 1970 as well as the 1974 vintage. The winer chosen by the panel of 10 experts -- who included winemakers, consultants and writers from California and Canada -- was Sterling Reserve, followed by the 1970 Beaulieu, Heitz Martha's Vineyard, and a fourth-place tie between the 1974 Beaulieu and Stag's Leap. They were followed by France's Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, Chateau Latour and Chateau Laite-Rothschild. Next came California's Robert Mondavi Reserve and Freemark Abbey Cabernet Bosche. And three bordeaux brought up the rear: Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion.
These three legendary bordeaux also placed last in the tasting at the reception, though in slightly different order. Among those 110 tasters, the Sterling Reserve was third; and the lowest-priced wine on the list -- Freemark Abbey's, rated 10th by the epert panel -- was the favorite.
What it all means depends on whom you ask. To Don Kinnan, who arranged the tasting, it means, "Top cabernets in California deserve the same status as the top cabernets in France." He reported that the results has "astounded everyone. It really shook up a lot of people," particularly since the society's reception included "a lot of French-speaking Francophiles."
Gregory DeLucca, vice president of Sterling, was in Washington when he heard the news. "We're very excited, of course," he responded, pointing out that, "There have never been collected before so many first growths against so many of California's finest wines." The tasting reinforced his conviction that California's Napa Valley is producing some of the best wines in the world and, more specifically, that Sterling's 1974 Reserve is "one of the best wines we've ever made." DeLucca redicts that the '78s and '79s will be even better. The latter were made by Sterling's new winemaking team, headed by Theo Rosenbrand.
This is where it gets complicated. Rosenbrand was part of the team who produced the 1974 Beaulieu, which was tied for fourth among the experts and rated ninth in the more public tasting. The higher-ranked Beaulieu, the 1970 (which, because there was only one bottle available, was not included in the tasting at the reception), was created by California's most famous winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff, who left the winery after it was sold to Heublein Inc., and now consults for other wineries.
As for the winner, the Sterling '74, it was made by Richard Forman, who left a couple of years after the winery was sold in 1977 to Coca Cola. After the 1978 harvest he joined former owner Peter Newton to start a new winery so far known under Forman's name.
Forman voiced strong opinions upon hearing of the Ottawa tasting. He would have chosen the Heitz as far and away the best of the California wines tasted. Asked about his Sterling wine, the winner, he mused, "I'm not that fond of the '74 wine I made. It's a big, heavy, typical California, overpowering wine, almost too strong."
He left Sterling, he says, because it got too big; they now do "winemaking by committee. They now have viticulturists, winemakers, lab assistants and administrators . . ." He hasn't even tasted any of the red wines since he left; said Forman, "When I left, I really left." He has tasted the white wines made by the new team, however, and has found them typical of the Beaulieu style, "kind of simple in comparison" to Sterling's earlier style.
Forman's ambition, despite the recent judgment, is to produce wines more like bordeaux, which he considers more elegant. California wines are, in his opinion, simpler wines. The tasting, he explains, reflects the tasters, who obviously prefer a big, soft, fruity style rather than the finesse of the bordeaux. Thus, the maker of the top-ranked wine of the Ottawa tasting disagreed with that judgment; of the French wines in the tasting, he was effusive: "My God, those are great wines!"
Besides pitting against each other wines that are not fully deveoped (the bordeaux, for instance, could benefit from another ten years), such a tasting compares fundamentally different wines -- apples and oranges, some might say. Or, as Michael Broadbent wrote of taste-offs between California cabernets and boredeaux in "The Great Vintage Wine Book," "verge on the fatuous: like trying to say which is the best cheese, brie or stilton."