by Michael Pinkus

Published in Grapevine Magazine on April 13, 2017.

By the time you read this it'll all be said and done - the winners will have been announced and the Judgement will be over; I'm talking about the Judgement of Kingston that took place on November 5th, 2016. Before I get into the details, let’s take a quick look at the impetus of what precipitated this event:

40 years ago an English wine merchant living in Paris named Steven Spurrier decided to hold a competition between the fledgling wines of California and the powerhouse of the wine world, France. He pitted California Chardonnay against the best of Burgundy and the Cabernets against the big names of Bordeaux. For example, on the California side there was Clos du Val, Stag’s Leap, Chateau Montelena and Freemark Abbey; while the French was represented by the likes of Mouton Rothschild, Haut Brion, Joseph Drouhin and Domaine Leflaive. Today it would seem like an interesting battle, but back then this was looked upon as a stunt to draw attention to Spurrier’s business and a tie-in to celebrate the 200 anniversary of the United States.

If you can imagine, at the time this was considered a very gimmicky event – everyone knew in their heart of hearts that the French would win the “event” hands down … which made this an almost “non-event” it was such a foregone conclusion, the Americans were going to lose.

The saving grace was that the top wine aficionados of France, who were invited to sit in judgement, would do so blind, with nothing but their palates to guide them. What happened next shocked the wine world to its very core – California won in both categories. But what might have just ended up being a historical ripple in the wine pond turned into a wave when the event was held again some 20 months later in San Francisco with the same wines being tasted. The French had argued that their wines needed time and were thus too young – but the replica tasting proved a win for the U.S again. The exact tasting has been replicated three more times since 1976, twice in 1986 and again in 2006 – and each time the California wines have come out on top.

Now granted, I’ve just provided the spoiler but there is a great book detailing the entire event written by the only journalist in attendance at the time, George M. Tabor, called the Judgement of Paris, and is very much worthy of a read.

Now back to present day … The 40th anniversary of those happenings sparked The Royal Winers of Kingston to wonder what would happen if some local Ontario wines took the plunge against the now power-house California wines; what’s more they thought it would be fun to use Ontario’s newest region as their inspiration for this David versus Goliath Competition – pitting the County of Prince Edward Chardonnays versus California’s big guns.

The event was held at Memorial Hall in Kingston’s City Hall with members of the general public in attendance and four recognized wine professionals as the judges (Sara d’Amato, Konrad Ejbich, Elin McCoy and yours truly, Michael Pinkus) … the outcome was inevitable; the more steely mineral driven County Chardonnays were easy to spot for the wine pros who ranked two County wines in the top 3:

  1. Rosehall Run 2013 JCR Chardonnay
  2. Closson Chase 2014 South Clos Chardonnay
  3. Clos du Val 2014 Chardonnay

But the masses saw it differently, and showed why California continues to reign atop the leaderboard at the LCBO, placing California in 3 of the top 4 spots; which goes to show from a general public point of view there is still some education needed about what makes Ontario wines so special.

The lone American judge, Elin McCoy had this to say in her column for Bloomberg three weeks after the tasting: (November 28) “like the Canadian judges, I ranked Ontario chardonnays as No. 1 and No. 2, ahead of the oakier Napa examples. They were brilliant: light and crisp, with spiky acidity, succulent layers of lemon-lime and stony flavours, and a flinty elegance missing from the California wines.”

Outspoken Toronto writer Konrad Ejbich said he found the results to be “completely predictable: PEC crushes California” and the idea for the event “terrific”.

For my part I too was of the opinion that the outcome was inevitable and predictable from a professionals point of view, but I also knew consumers would swing the other way, California is about big and creamy while Ontario is about acidity and elegance and it seems creamy and opulent wins out in the eye of the consumer because that’s what they’ve been told– big is always better as they say in Texas – but it shouldn’t, not when it comes to Chardonnay.

I hear rumblings that the Royal Winers are going to do it all again, but this time with Pinot Noir – I hope I’m there to witness the carnage again.

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