A History of the California Barrel Tastings: Part 1 “[N]o one will be able to hold California back”
This is the first in a series of posts surveying the history behind the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting and its predecessor Gerald Asher’s California Vintners Barrel Tasting
This spring I tasted the 2015 Ridge, Monte Bello, thus marking my seventh year tasting barrel samples of the famed Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ridge’s history with the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting runs back to the first tasting held in Washington, DC, on June 6, 1986. They were one of 15 Californian producers showcasing their 1984 vintages. This was the very first tasting where the Californian barrel samples were offered as futures. It was not, however, the first California barrel tasting held on the east coast. Some ten year earlier 17 Californian wineries each poured a pair of wines in New York City. Amongst the wines poured was the 1975 and 1974 Ridge, Lytton Springs, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Not only did the first California barrel tasting take place in 1976 but so did the Judgment of Paris. This French versus California tasting has long been held as the pivotal point in the post-Prohibition history of Californian wine. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the famous tasting held in Paris by Steven Spurrier. In celebration, a wealth of articles were published that continued the claim that this was the turning or launching point that forever changed the world of wine.
The Judgement in Paris certainly helped change the world of Californian wine on an international level. But as Steve Heimhoff notes, California had been building an “identity and momentum” for decades prior. We can be more specific than that. A particular momentum began in 1969 and was described at the time as the “wine boom”. This boom was fueled by an increasing population of coming of age baby-boomers who were interested in drinking wine. Not only were foreign wines consumed in greater quantities so were those of California. The resultant increase in California vineyard area and the creation of new wineries was only accelerated by sky-rocketing French wine prices that left consumers looking for alternatives.
The wine boom is what enabled the first California barrel tasting and the Judgment of Paris to take place in 1976. They occurred during a pivotal year in Californian history because newly planted vineyards were finally bearing fruit and new markets for the wine were needed outside of the state. Incredibly, 40 years later the barrel tasting still provide a constant platform for the general public to taste these wines.
The New York City Years
The First Annual California Vintners Barrel Tasting Dinner took place at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City during March 1976. Nearly 200 wine enthusiasts paid $50 each to taste 34 wines over a 17 course dinner. Each winery brought both the 1975 vintage and an old vintage of the same wine. This selection resulted in 600 bottles of wine requiring 3,000 wine glasses. The glasses were used at least twice.
The dinner began at 7:30pm. Each wine was discussed by the winery owner or winemaker. These speeches overran the allotted times and table hopping guests clogged the aisles preventing timely table service. Attendees were instructed to remain sitting for the third intermission but the delays had already racked up. When Louis Martini introduced the crowd to his 1975 and 1970 vintages he began, “Good Morning.”
The tasting was organized by Gerald Asher, the English wine writer and wine distributor, who worked closely with Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai, co-owners of The Four Seasons. Seated at the high table with these three men were Joseph Baum, creator of The Four Seasons in 1959, James Beard, and Alexis Lichine. The original Four Seasons wine cellar was created by Joseph Baum, James Beard, and Alexis Lichine.
Alexis Lichine and James Beard were instrumental in the post-World War II development of the wine market in America. Together with Sam Aaron and Frank Schoonmaker, this group imported and educated the American public on European wines during the 1950s and 1960s. At the time of the Barrel Tasting the Four Seasons wine cellar reflected its classic beginnings as it was still deep on 1952 and 1953 Bordeaux vintages.
Paul Kovi loved wine, maintaining a staff of eight captains to help manage the 30,000 bottle cellar. The rise in popularity of Californian wines began in the late 1960s and Paul Kovi was one fan. American wine was a particular pride of his wine list, having stocked 80 different selections including 1968 and 1969 Heitz, Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a perfect that Gerald Asher would pair with The Four Seasons to host his Californian barrel tasting.
That the Californian barrel tasting was held in New York City was not solely the result of the natural curiosity of East Coast wine lovers. It was the result of a boom in wine consumption in America that began in 1969. This boom drove a year after year increase in Californian vineyard planting simultaneous with a run up in Bordeaux and Burgundy wine prices. When the Bordeaux market collapsed, the new Californian vineyards happened to begin yielding wine. There was battle for the American wine consumers by Californian and French interests which led to two French wine scandals.
Up next: The Wine Boom and Winegate