In 1976, the Napa Valley was thrust onto the world stage. Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars had won The Judgment of Paris tasting organized by British wine journalist and author Steven Spurrier beating out some of the world’s most highly prized French wines.
From that single event, careers, fortunes and legacies were created. Movies have been made and books have been written, but few speak of the woman who arguably had one of the biggest roles to play in the event — Joanne DePuy.
“I introduced both of the winning wines to Steven Spurrier, and I even transported the wines over to Paris for the tasting for him,” she said in an interview.
Spurrier agrees, as he explained in an email:
“Thanks to Joanne DePuy’s introductions to Chateau Montelena and to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, these two wines were included in the Paris tasting. But even more thanks go to Joanne, for had she not persuaded her group to hand-carry the bottles to Paris, I would not have been able to get them through French customs and the Paris tasting would not have taken place.”
DePuy had graduated with a degree in international relations from UC Berkeley in 1949 and moved to the Napa Valley in 1951. There, she raised her family and fell in love with both the wine and the people of the area. “We moved to Napa before it was ‘the Napa Valley’,” she said.
By 1973, her children had grown and she was deciding what to do for her second act.
“I’d always loved travel, tennis and wine, so I decided to create wine and tennis tours of the wine regions of the world,” she said. “My idea was to have the tours hosted by Napa vintners, and I’d also bring international vintners to the Napa Valley. In 1973 I started Wine Tours International, Inc., and Tennis Limited.”
To create a successful wine and tennis tour company, DePuy knew she needed the support of locals.
“The Chappellets, Claude Rouas, the Van Asperens, Jim and Maggie Warren were among those on my board,” she said. “They were all very supportive and encouraged me on.”
She also needed influential vintners to lead her tours. In September 1974, she met Louis P. Martini, then president of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, at the Louis M. Martini winery in St. Helena.
“Louis was one of the most knowledgeable men in the U.S. wine industry,” she said. “We talked for an hour, interrupted only when his father [Louis M. Martini, founder of the family winery] peeked into the office and introduced himself. He was delightful, radiating the Martini charm. As our meeting neared its end, Louis P. suggested I talk with André Tchelistcheff, dean of American winemakers and recently retired from Beaulieu Vineyards.”
DePuy secured a meeting with Tchelistcheff with the hope of convincing him to lead one of her tours. She said Tchelistcheff listened attentively and was intrigued by the concept, but he was busy and declined her invitation. Still, she was not deterred.
“We were in the Vallerga’s Market in Napa one day and our cart banged into Joanne’s cart,” Tchelistcheff’s wife Dorothy said during a phone conversation. “We all laughed and then Joanne asked André, ‘When are you going to lead one of my tours?’ To my surprise he said, ‘I am ready.’ After, when we were standing in the checkout line, André turned to me and asked, ‘Why did you let me do that?’”
Beyond securing the most famous winemaker in California to lead a tour, DePuy remained active in the local and international wine scene.
“September 1975, shortly before I was to fly to Paris as a guest of Secretariat D’Etat au Tourisme Francais to tour the Beaujolais region and to finalize plans for the Tchelistcheff tour, I received a call from Patricia Gallagher.”
An American who worked in Paris, Gallagher was assistant director of the Academie du Vin, connected to the Caves de la Madeleine, France’s first private wine school, founded and run by an Englishman, Steven Spurrier. She was planning a trip to the Napa wine region, and an acquaintance, who had heard of Wine Tours International, suggested she contact DePuy.
“I had recently tasted outstanding wines from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Château Montelena and advised her to visit them while she was here,” DePuy said. “When I flew to Paris, I carried a bottle of Château Montelena chardonnay as a gift to Patricia and Steven.”
“I remember the gift,” wrote Spurrier in an email. “Patricia Gallagher and I tasted the wine and found it very good, so earmarked Montelena for the final selection. This made me make a point of contacting Joanne when my wife and I went to Napa.”
DePuy continued the story: “In April, a month before the tour, Steven Spurrier asked if I would take him and his wife, Bella, through the Napa Valley. I said I’d be delighted to. We visited Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Château Montelena, among others.
“I realized immediately that this handsome young Englishman had a very good palate. During our day in the valley, Steven discussed the tasting he was planning in Paris in honor of our bicentennial year. The tasting was to show that California was now making good wines, although I don’t think he believed that California wines would win over the French.”
A week later—only six days before the Tchelistcheff tour was slated to leave from San Francisco — Spurrier called DePuy.
“‘Help!’ Spurrier said ‘I can’t take all the wine I bought in California with me to Paris. We are only allowed two bottles apiece. Can you take it with your group?’” DePuy said. “Without thinking, I said, ‘Yes, of course.’”
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Spurrier had three cases of wine dropped off at DePuy’s house for transport to Paris.
“I had no idea what that hastily made promise would involve. How could I get these wines to Paris?” DePuy said. “I couldn’t ask the people on the tour, already loaded with their own luggage, to hand-carry two bottles each for 20 hours and through two different airports. I had no idea where to begin.”
She called André Tchelistcheff. “I explained who Steven Spurrier was and that he was so impressed with the quality of California wines he was going to include some in a tasting at his shop in Paris. André asked what wines he’d chosen. I read him a list of the wines. André said, ‘This young man has a very good palate.’”
On the day DePuy drove to the airport, she carried three cases of wine. “I wasn’t sure how we’d get them to Paris,” she said.
One idea was to have three of the larger vintners in the group each carry one case of the wine.
“There was the 6-foot-4-inch Louis Martini, 6-foot-3-inch Rene di Rosa, and the very strong and tall Andy Beckstoffer, but none of their wines were included in Steven’s cases,” DePuy said. “I couldn’t really ask one vintner to carry another vintner’s wine to Paris, so I needed to figure out another way.”
Eventually, the TWA representative Earl Hankin persuaded the airlines to put the wine on the plane.
“When we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I immediately noticed Steven in his trademark white suit,” she said. “He was grinning as he approached. At the same time, I was keeping an eye out for the cases of wine. And then I smelled it — the very strong smell of magnificent California wine making its debut in Paris. Luckily only one bottle had broken, and that bottle had a replacement. Steven and I were both relieved.”
For the next three weeks, DePuy’s tour group explored Paris, the Champagne region, Burgundy and Bordeaux, with Tchelistcheff tirelessly leading the group.
“André was much loved in Paris,” she said. “He was greeted like royalty by Pierre Brejoux, whom I’d met in November. André was also a magnificent leader, explaining in inexhaustible detail the nuances of French winemaking to our group of vintners.”
The day before the tour ended, the group gathered at their final stop, Château Lascombes, where they enjoyed a guided tour followed by aperitifs and lunch with 50 Bordeaux vintners.
“During aperitifs, a uniformed staffer tapped me on the shoulder asking for Monsieur Barrett. He was wanted on the telephone,” DePuy said. “I found Jim Barrett (owner of Chateau Montelena), and we followed the staffer to a small office. I was concerned. Who could know where we were? I thought one of Jim’s children was hurt, or worse.”
But the phone call was not to report a tragedy. Instead, it was to inform the group of the results of the Paris tasting.
“Jim took the phone and then gave me a thumbs-up,” DePuy said. “I was relieved but curious when Jim then said, ‘Not bad for a kid from the sticks.’After Jim told me, ‘That was a reporter from Time magazine. Our white wine just won Steven’s tasting, and Warren (Winiarski) won the reds.’
“I was flabbergasted and raced to tell André. He was very calm and said to me, ‘Don’t say a word. We must not let the French know of this.’ I found Jim and passed along André’s wise advice, but the word had already spread among the California visitors. Being as savvy as they all were, not one said a word.”
“André was very cautious about sharing the news with our French guests,” said Dorothy. “He did not want to insult them so asked that everyone in the group refrain from becoming too excited. But when we got on the bus it was different.”
“After we’d left and the bus turned the corner, everyone erupted with cheers,” DePuy said. We hugged, kissed, and cheered André and the Barretts—and Mike Grgich and the Winiarskis in absentia. Both winning winemakers – Mike Grgich who made the chardonnay and Warren Winiarski who made the cabernet had trained under André. He was indeed the king of the wine world. It couldn’t have happened to a better man.”
“The Paris Tasting was a Copernican moment,” said Warren Winiarski in a phone interview.
Winiarski was referring to the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer, Copernicus, who formulated a revolutionary model of the universe at the time that placed the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe.
“As the Smithsonian has stated, the tasting cracked the myth of French-wine supremacy,” Winiarski said. “And once you do that then others had an opportunity to stretched their aspirations and expand their horizon, no longer beholden to a frame of mind that was bound by limits.”
Like many such moments in history that with hindsight seem only to grow in importance, at the time, after spending weeks in France DePuy and her group were ready to get back home, not comprehending that the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting had ushered California wines to the world stage and would change lives forever.
“The day I arrived at the airport to leave,” DePuy said, “I noticed the headlines in the Bordeaux papers announcing to the world that California had beaten the French in a wine-tasting. Because I don’t speak French, I didn’t buy the paper. I wish I had.”