Reason.tv: Red, White, and Sacrebleu—How American Wines Shocked the World

From wine elves to classy pitchmen, American winemakers have tried just about everything to challenge the dominance of French vintners. And yet, with infamous labels like Ripple and Thunderbird, Yankee wines had long endured the reputation of being good for just one one thing—getting blitzed.

So it must have seemed like a cruel joke in 1976 when a British wine merchant arranged The Paris Tasting, a one-of-its-kind competition that pitted mighty France versus lowly America in a blind taste test judged entirely by Gallic wine experts. 

But as viewers of the movie Bottle Shock and the documentary Mondovino can tell you, the unthinkable happened: America took home top honors for both red and white wine.

The Paris Tasting made Mike Grgich an instant legend, but back then, even the maker of the winning white couldn't believe he had won. "I said are you sure it's me?" recalls Grgich. How could this American, an immigrant who fled communist Yugoslavia, shock the world?

The French wanted to find out, so Jean-Noël Fourmeaux, an official government wine taster became a wine spy. He headed to California to discover how, in the span of a couple of decades, American winemakers progressed from Thunderbird to Grgich's award-winning white.

Fourmeaux encountered a freewheeling atmosphere of technological and cultural innovation—one that attracted the likes of Squire Fridell of Glen Lyon Vineyards, a winemaker who has his own reason for smiling at America's emergence as a leader in wine. Fourmeaux pondered what he could create by mixing French tradition with Yankee innovation, and it led him to a most unexpected decision.

"Red, White, and Sacrebleu" is written and produced by Ted Balaker, who also hosts. Director of Photography: Alex Manning; Field Producers: Paul Detrick and Hawk Jensen; Production Associates: Zach Weissmueller and Tannen Wels.

Special thanks to D'Argenzio Winery and the Wine Institute.

Approximately 7.30 minutes. Go here for downloadable versions.

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  • JB||

    Obama, you want to create jobs?

    Then get out of the way, you incompetent fool.

  • HeadTater||

    Congratulations! You just made it on the enemies list.

  • JB||

    Good.

  • ||

    Annie Green Springs. Peach Creek, Cherry Orchard, Plum Hollow. Seventeen dollars a case.

    Oh, and you spelled Grinch wrong.

  • Mad Elf||

    Boone's Farm is better than all the labels mentioned in the article.

  • ||

    For that matter, you spelled "Sacre Bleu!" wrong, too.

  • d||

    You mean to say: you spelled "sacre' bleu" wrong (where the ' is a so-called "accent e'gu" [which itself has the same accent...but I'll stop here before an infinite regress ensues]).

  • MNG||

    Alcohol in beverages is for getting drunk. If you want taste you should drink homade limades.

  • ||

    If I had taste, I wouldn't be here.

  • Ska||

    But wouldn't it hold that the finest of alcoholic concoctions would also please the palate? Otherwise we'd all be doing shots of Graves instead of, well, enjoying our drinks.

  • Mad Elf||

    It's about taste as well. That's why I always mix my 15 year Glenmorangie single malt with Mountain Dew. The flavor can't be beat, and I get drunk, too.

  • robc||

    Utilitarian bullshit.

    I make my own beer, I rarely get drunk off it.

  • ||

    That reminds me of a while back when there was a thread on BeerAdvocate about whether you'd still drink beer if it didn't have any alcohol. While some debated whether it would have the same character without the alcohol (which is true but kind of misses the point), I was shocked how many people flat-out said no.

  • robc||

    Ditto. I cant remember if I posted on that thread or not, but, yeah, Im drinking for the taste. I dont think you can make an alcohol free beer with the same taste, so its a moot point.

    However, one of my early homebrews, the first Oktoberfest I ever made, was nicknamed "ODouls" by my "friends". It was killed at a party and no one felt the alcohol. It was lower than my target, but I swear it was pushing 5%. They deny it. They drank it because it tasted good. We killed 5 gallons in a night and no one was drunk, so maybe it was really low alcohol. Never figured that one out.

  • kinnath||

    I know a wide variety of brewers/vintnors/mazers all of whom have different goals when making product.

    There are plenty of people just trying to make high alcohol product to get a cheap buzz. But the majority of the people that make the effort are focussed on making a quality product.

  • ||

    Beer is an acquired taste. I enjoy it now more for the flavor than the buzz, but if I didn't drink it in my younger days to get drunk I never would have bothered to discover better tasting beers as I matured.

  • Ska||

    Why can't I enjoy both? I love drinking beer; I love trying different beers and experiencing the wide range of flavor characteristics that beer can have.

    I also enjoy a good buzz. Nothing wrong with that either.

    If taste didn't matter we'd all be drinking jungle juice or Olde English. If alcoholic content didn't matter, I'm sure someone would be able to brew a tasty beer with 2% alc. by volume.

    Coffee is similar in a way - sure you can have a decaf that probably tastes as good as regular coffe with caffeine. But I enjoy the effects of the caffeine as much as I enjoy the taste. Why would I deprive myself of the whole experience?

  • robc||

    I agree, the effects from the alcohol are one of the benefits of drinking.

  • ||

    Oh, I'm not saying you can't enjoy both. I'll certainly admit that there are times that I might choose beer specifically for the alcohol. And I'll confess to occasionally brewing high-alcohol beers just to have high-alcohol beer around. It's just when somebody says that they wouldn't drink beer at all if it didn't contain alcohol, well, that's saying the taste aspect is basically worthless. And that's fine too, but if you're going to do that then why waste your time on "good" beer? That's what I found odd.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    Alcohol can extract flavors from foods that otherwise can't be extracted by other means.

    Though for the most part, I agree with you MNG. I was that asshole who when asked to do something or bring something for cocktails at parties, would bring a bottle or two of the cheapest vodka I could find. It works just as well for doing what people want it to do and that's make them drunk.

  • Warty||

    The best is Military Special gin. It's even in a plastic bottle, so you can throw it at your friends for lulz all around.

  • Ted S.||

    I was that asshole who when asked to do something or bring something for cocktails at parties, would bring a bottle or two of the cheapest vodka I could find.
    But you'd buy something different if it were only for yourself.

    It's the same reason why we get such crappy effect from government action. The bureaucrats don't care what outcome we get as long as they fulfil their obligations -- if they even care that much.

  • ||

    This is why progressives should not hold power. They assume they know why people do certain things and are usually wrong.

  • ||

    If the sole criteria is to get drunk as cheaply as possible, you'd buy Everclear, or maybe box 'o wines, or Bud Heavies.

    Except that they taste like shit.

    By this logic, you might as well dress in a plastic garbage bag with holes cut out for the head and limbs.

  • ||

    Wow, tryuly shocking indeed. Who would have thunk it.

    www.HideMyStuff.net

  • kinnath||

    Mike Grgich make a mean Cab as well.

  • edna||

    mike g is the biggest lech in the napa valley. not that there's anything wrong with that.

    seriously, california wine has gone so far in a bad direction, it's hard to take seriously anymore. past navarro and edmunds st john, it's hard for me to think of anything even vaguely of quality. over-ripe stubby-fingered aussie-wannabe crap for the ultra-rich hobbyists or dead-bland commercial plonk: take yer choice.

  • kinnath||

    Frank Altamura & Marco DiGiulio make damn fine wines . . .

  • Grandpa Whithers||

    Cakebread Cellars rock!

  • kinnath||

    I have a couple bottles of Etude that may be the best Cab I have in the cellar.

  • hurly buehrle||

    If by "California wine" you mean Napa and Sonoma wine, I completely agree: overpriced, overrated. But a lot of first-rate wines are made down in Santa Barbara/SLO counties.

  • ||

    I found when I lived near the wine country in SF that the wine got cheaper with possibly even better quality and no tasting room fees north of Napa and Sonoma -- Russian River, Alexander Valley et al.

    But I've found at Costco that for a given wine review rating (90 or better, say), that places like Chile or Spain or Australia give the most bang for the buck.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Only a Frenchman would escape to California to get away from the heavy hand of government regulation.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    And all the North Korean winemakers are trying to get to Bordeaux.

  • ||

    And all the Iranian winemakers are trying to get to North Korea?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I think North Korea is probably at the top of the state oppression food chain.

  • ||

    Iran has a long winemaking tradition and was known for quality up until the 1979 revolution. Christians are still allowed to make wine but theocratic prohibition of Muslims producing or selling alcohol have hurt the region.

  • EJM||

    ...one that attracted the likes of Squire Fridell of Glen Lyon Vineyards...

    So, the famed Toyota pitchman (and TV character actor) turns out to also be quite the winemaker.

  • Mad Max||

    'Jean-Noël Fourmeaux, an official government wine taster'

    I bet America is the only industrialized democracy without an official government wine taster. I hope the Obama administration remedies this oversight. I know people who'd love to apply for the job. ؟

  • Mad Max||

    'Hmmm . . . ze furthair study ees required.'

    'Non, I cannot make a feenal deecision until I have conducted ze furthair resairch.'

    'Zut alors! Who has stolain ze evidence? Eet was here just an hour ago, but now zere are nothing but ze empty bottles. How can I conduct an evidaince-based review of ze [hic] eevaidance eef someone keeps stealing eet? Breeng me more [hic] evidence!'

  • Mad Max||

    'Oooh, I do not feel so bon . . . ze world ees speening . . . Thank God for ze French health-care seestem!'

  • ||

    I know people who'd love to apply for the job.

    *starts gathering resume and references*

  • Kathleen||

    Although in the '70s California wine won top honours, in recent years the same technologies the winemakers used to win that spot have taken over and created a monster. The wines mentioned in the comments as being "good" or "the best" are priced somewhere between $30 and $100 per bottle, depending on vintage. There are nearly no good California, or for that matter other Domestic wines in the under-$20 range. Oak chips, late harvesting, and assembly-line bottling machines have invented an industry dedicated to mass production. For something as sensitive as wine (a temperature change of one degree F during fermentation can alter the final characteristics), all that does is create a product that is nearly the identical (and uninteresting) from year to year, rather than allowing for normal variation.

    Give me a $10 Italian Montepulciano any day of the week.

  • kinnath||

    I don't buy $10/bottle wines. I make my own.

    But you are correct, domestic wines tend to break down into low-cost crap and high-cost premium wines.

    For low-cost, I recommend Rioja. You can get good tempranillo for under $10 and crazy good for under $50.

    Of course, you just can't beat a good Brunello di Montelcino or a Barolo.

  • C-man||

    Yes, but you will need to cellar the Brunello or Barolo for several years. I recommend the wines of Mendoza, specifically Malbecs, as wonderful $20 bargains. There is a reason the Lafites and Cheval Blanc have partnered with vitners in Argentina.

  • kinnath||

    Malbec turns me off for some reason. I much prefer Spanish Tempranillo.

  • kinnath||

    The pacific northwest does produce nice pinto noir that can be had for under $20.

  • Tim||

    Long Island produces some good, less mass produced, wines for about $20, and up.

  • ||

    I like Pepsi.

  • ||

    I don't actually care for California wines for some reason. Not because they're "not European" (I like Chilean wines a lot), but there's something to their taste that I don't really like. Maybe it's a subtle thing in the soil or something, but for me, it's there. I'll take a Spanish or Chilean Cab over a Cali one any day.

  • ||

    whites? cali's are often over-oaked...

  • Tim||

    True of their cabs for sure.

  • ||

    I like California wines. They make some outstanding stuff, as a tasting tour of wine country will reveal. But the real estate and labor costs are so high, they have to overprice them. So Spanish and Chilean and Australian wines get you a much better wine for a given price level.

    One of the most astonishing wine values -- "Two Buck Chuck" Charles Shaw merlot at Trader Joe's (for $3 -- inflation!) Did a blind tasting and thought the fucker was a $20 or more bottle.

  • EJM||

    I don't actually care for California wines for some reason.

    Might it be the result of some sort of repressed dislike of "Falcon Crest"?

  • Colonel_Angus||

  • Colin||

    A+

    Now, if we could only get all the francophiles on the Left to watch it.

  • HeadTater||

    A great way to introduce free-market capitalism and why it works best to limousine liberals (aka progressives).

  • ||

    Like most industries, food regulation in Europe (and here) is to protect the established players from competition. Partly because costly regulation favors companies that can pay, but also because of rent seeking by large corps that they can do due to their donations.

    They say it is to stop young upstart companies who don't have "proper" respect for tradition from ruining food. But that is such a lie it is laughable.

    So don't worry, with all the statists in our country, it will only be a century or so before our regulations prohibit california winemakers from innovating. Then someone else will step up and take over.

    That even applies to food safety. nowdays pork and raw milk products can be made much safer than the old days, but the regulations are still in effect. After all if they were relaxed the larger established businesses would have spent all that money on equipment for nothing, and would suddenly face a lot more competition.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    As coincidence Bottle Shock was on the televisions yesterday so I watched it. It wasn't as bad as so many people claimed, but I did notice I kept looking at Chris Pine and seeing Captain Kirk. How the hell did that happen?

  • Galen Struwe||

    The beauty inherent in the term "Sacre Bleu" is exactly why we wanted it for the name of our brand. It denotes astonishment and delight, the two great elements of wonderful wine. Sacre Bleu, Cheers!

  • Death Panelist||

    Here's looking up your old address.

  • Matthew||

    Jean-Noel's winery in Napa, Chateau Potelle makes some V.G.S wines...very good s..t!

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

  • nike shox||

    is good

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