‘Bottle Shock’ Versus What Actually Happened During the Judgment of Paris

Steven Spurrier in the 1976 Judgment of Paris
Updated November 2023

When searching ‘Judgment of Paris’ on the internet, a Greek mythology story comes up. Some know this as a tale that eventually led to the Trojan War. So it’s not a surprise that the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 was informally dubbed the Judgment of Paris in a nod to the shocking – and revolutionary – results of the blind tasting competition. 

The problem with tales, fables, and stories alike is facts and details get lost. Sometimes wholly new facets are created from mere hearsay. That happened when the creators of Bottle Shock, released in 2008, told their version of how the Judgment of Paris went down. In real life, the tasting was orchestrated by Steven Spurrier and Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher to showcase the quality of the yet-to-be-successful wines of California. Steven, who recently passed away, was a friend of SOMM TV and was always vocal about the misinterpretations in the film. 

In the spring of 2020, Steven graciously spent the time to watch the entire film alongside Jason Wise, director of the SOMM films. Available to SOMM TV subscribers, Bottle Shock Live Watch gives viewers a start-to-finish rendition of Steven’s candid interpretation of the film and what truthfully happened during the Judgment of Paris. 

Bottle Shock live watch with Steven Spurrier and Jason Wise

What Is the Judgment of Paris?

The Judgment of Paris changed the course of the wine industry. It thrust wines from California to a leading position among historic, premier chateaus from France. The May 24, 1976 blind tasting positioned Burgundy Chardonnay against California Chardonnay and Red Bordeaux against California Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, California wines hadn’t made a mark internationally. But Spurrier had strong feelings that the quality was on par with what was coming out of France. As it turns out – he was right! 

Nine French judges rated each wine out of 20 possible points. Results for the whites placed Napa’s Chateau Montelena in the top spot with 132 points, while Meursault Charmes Roulot placed second with 126.5. California wineries also took third and fourth place. For reds, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars came first with 127.5 points. Château Mouton-Rothschild came second with a very close 126 points. France also took third and fourth place. 

About Steven Spurrier

Spurrier was a heavyweight in the wine industry from an early age. At 23, he became a trainee with Christopher and Co. in London, the city’s oldest wine merchant. From there, at only 29 years old, he moved to Paris to purchase Les Caves de la Madeleine. He was the owner of the shop and ran it until 1988.

In conjunction with the wine shop, Spurrier also started France’s first private wine school, L’Academie du Vin, in partnership with Jon Winroth and Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher. After selling his wine shop, Spurrier focused on consulting and writing and became the director of The Christie’s Wine Course in addition to consulting editor of Decanter magazine. He also travelled the world to attend and judge international competitions. It wasn’t until 2019 that he established the Academie du Vin Library, somewhat of an extension of the wine school. The library publishes wine classics and new titles that provide a colorful and unique representation of the wine world.

Steven Spurrier - One of the greatest wine legends

Misleading Events Portrayed in Bottle Shock

Bottle Shock, starring Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, depicts the events leading up to the Judgment of Paris. Without knowing much about the real tasting, viewers might think the film to be mostly fact. However, as we discover during the Bottle Shock Live Watch, the occurrence of a tasting is about the only thing that’s true to history in the film. 

From a casting perspective, Spurrier was both happy and a little put off by the choice of Rickman in the lead role. For the most part, Spurrier appreciated the integrity that Rickman brought to the role. However, Spurrier was only 34 at the time. But in 2008, when Bottle Shock came out, Rickman was 62. Throughout Bottle Shock Live Watch, Spurrier comments that he rarely ever wore a three-piece suit and isn’t as snobby about wine as Rickman’s rendition makes him out to be. But these are just small details and minor character traits that aren’t pivotal to the more significant themes in the movie that are outright false and a complete fabrication put together by screenwriters. 

Read ahead for four of the largest farces depicted in Bottle Shock. 

1. Spurrier’s Wine Shop Was In Need of Publicity

“That is the biggest lie in the whole movie,” says Spurrier during the Bottle Shock Live Watch. Looking at the movie from a screenwriter’s perspective, the tasting needed a precipice. Going out of business and needing publicity seemed like a good one.

In reality, Spurrier explains that he was in a good enough financial position to spend 15 to 20 thousand pounds (at today’s rate) to make the tasting happen. “I did it because I could afford it. And I could afford it because my shop was doing exceptionally well,” says Spurrier. Jason Wise comments, “The whole movie hinges on this: that you can’t run your wine shop.” As any true Brit retorts, “total bullsh**”, says Spurrier.

Bar de L'Academie du vin sign

2. Spurrier Went To California Without Knowing Which Wines To Taste

In Bottle Shock, Spurrier’s character travels stateside without having much experience tasting California wines. He drives from winery to winery, making a list of potential candidates to include in the tasting. This process occurs over a good portion of the movie, allowing for a build-up of the plot and more time for the audience to get to know Jim and Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena. 

In reality, a shortlist was already put together by Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher, director at l’Académie du Vin. The list included Stag’s Leap, Clos du Val, Montelena and Mayacamas, among others.

In real life, Spurrier went to California, tasted wines from the a shortlist of wineries, picked up the bottles and was on his way back to Paris. The idea that Montelena didn’t want to participate in the tasting was also false. 

3. Wine Turns Brown Then Turns Clear Again

The concept of bottle shock is real, but it doesn’t refer to discoloration or brown wine as portrayed in the movie. Bottle shock refers to a state where the flavors of wine are temporarily altered. It happens most often immediately after the wine gets put into bottle, when it’s most fragile. It can also happen if the bottle jostles too much during travel.

What is correct in the film is that bottle shock is brief. After a few days of settling, the flavors return to their intended nature. Of course, Hollywood anticipation allows this plot point to drive audiences toward the theatrical climax.

4. Major Details of the Tasting

In the movie, the tasting is outdoors, on the outskirts of Paris. There are spectators and commotion. Bo Barrett (Chris Pine’s character) even travels to be there to represent Chateau Montelena. 

In real life, any respectable and serious tasting occurs indoors. The tasting was inside a hotel; the wines were served at a table with white tablecloths by staff in white gloves, one by one in absolute silence.

During Bottle Shock Live Watch, Spurrier explains, “In the movie, it’s a performance. In reality, it was a very serious blind tasting with only the participants in the room, apart from Patricia and myself. And our notes were not taken into account,” he continues, “the judges certainly weren’t talking to each other.”

Overall, the Judgment of Paris was a turning point for wines from California and all wines made in the New World. The importance of the tasting and its impact is astounding. Thousands of people owe their lives and success in wine to the Judgment of Paris.

But the effects are not a see-saw. Just because California wines were on top in 1976 doesn’t mean French wines went down. “It was a kick up the pants for French wine, but that didn’t do them any harm. In fact, it was very much to their advantage,” says Spurrier during the live watch. As the saying goes, any publicity is good publicity. 

© 2021 - 2024 SOMM TV | Forgotten Man Films. All Rights Reserved. View our Privacy Policy.