A few years ago I was drinking wine here in Miami with a French friend whose family owns a winery in Burgundy. I poured him something from this hemisphere – it was either a California Cabernet or a Chilean Carménère – and from the look on his face I could tell he thought I was dispensing blood in his glass. Ditto when he tasted it: too heavy, fruit-forward, spicy, all the usual Old World criticisms of New World wine. “In France we prefer our wines to be more… subtle,” he sniffed. To which I replied, “Was it subtlety that saved your butts at Normandy?”
He liked that rejoinder about as much as the French are enjoying New York Post headlines about Dominique Strauss-Kahn. As it so happens, the former IMF chief’s travails coincide with the 35th anniversary of the day American Cabernet defeated French Bordeaux at a major blind tasting competition in Paris. On May 24, 1976, the year of the U.S. bicentennial, judges gave the top prize to a 1973 Stag’s Leap from California’s Napa Valley over a 1970 Château Mouton Rothschild. (TIME’s Paris correspondent at the time, George Taber, was the only journalist present and wrote this classic account.) Some of the French panelists, upon realizing la horreur of what they’d done, demanded their score cards back. But the yankee triumph was real: fruit-forward ruled!
This year’s “Judgment of Paris” commemoration is doubly satisfying because we’re learning that for the first time ever, America is drinking more wine than France is. Last year, the U.S. sipped 330 million 12-bottle cases compared to 321 million in France. The French still drink more wine per capita; yet per capita U.S. intake is rising while in France it’s declining. I’m not a wine expert, just a journalist dilettante; but as the TIME correspondent who covers this hemisphere from Tallahassee to Tierra del Fuego, I’m also struck by the roster of countries producing the wine that Americans drink today. Of the top four wine exporters to the U.S. in terms of volume, three are from the New World: Australia, Chile and Argentina. France is fifth.
Sure, some of that’s due to the fact that Australian and South American wines are cheaper on average than French and European bottles. But, as happened with les vins Américains a generation ago, wines from the rest of the New World are known as much for vintage today as they are for value. That’s especially true of the varietals that New World winemaking countries have embraced as their own – Carménère in Chile, Malbec in Argentina and Shiraz in Australia – and it’s just as big a reason why America’s increasingly knowledgeable wine drinkers (and aficionados in Europe and Asia, where China is now one of the top importers of Chilean wine) are buying them. The value, of course, doesn’t hurt, either: it’s easy to become a fan of one of Chile’s best Carménères, Santa Ema’s Barrel Select Reserve, a wine that seems to offer the best of both Cabernet and Merlot, when it costs less than $15.
I’m as big a fan of French wine as anyone – when I can afford it. Bordeaux and Burgundies were the first really good bottles I was introduced to when I started learning about wine in college 30 years ago. And yes, they were as subtle on the palate as they were majestic. But as much as I marveled at the “peacock’s fan” finish of the Chambertin-Clos de Bèze a professor once served, it’s hard to find a French wine like that for less than $50; and often, the Burgundies you find for less than $25 can be “subtle” to the point of uninteresting.
So raise a glass of California Zinfandel today – or Uruguayan Tannat, for that matter – and toast the moment when the New World made the vinicultural map. When New World wine was no longer an oxymoron, as Old World snobs like British author and oenophile Evelyn Waugh considered it. I’ll admit that Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited contains one of my favorite lines about wine – when he praises a Burgundy by calling it “a reminder that the world was an older and better place” than we know. But thanks to the tasting of 1976, it seems just as high a compliment now to call a Cabernet or a Carménère a reminder that the world is a newer and better place than we know.