Somm 3 Celebrates California Wine’s Epic Story

The first documentary film, “Somm” chronicled the arduous regime of four young sommeliers, struggling to prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam.  “Somm 2” tells the story behind producing a bottle of wine, examining the challenges of each vintage through harvesting of the grapes to proper aging as it evolves.

Director Jason Wise’s latest release, “Somm 3,” that recently had its San Francisco premiere at the Clay Theater on Fillmore, chronicles the ongoing comparisons between old and new world wines that began on a May afternoon in 1976 with a blind tasting now commonly known as the Judgement of Paris.

The film begins its homage to history by bringing together three icons of the modern wine story to do some tastings of their own.  Wine critic and prolific author Jancis Robinson, master sommelier Fred Dame and Steve Spurrier, one of the organizers of the 1976 Paris Tasting, come together in the Clos du Val barrel room to share their favorite releases and memories of the past fifty years.

Jancis Robinson, Fred Dame and Steve Spurrier

Owner of the Caves de la Madeleine wine shop in Paris, Spurrier was immersed in the French wine scene and, after months of persuading skeptics to participate, he organized a blind tasting where the top French wine experts compared the best wines from their country with some new generation California wines.  The wines of the competition were as follows:

Chardonnay California: Chateau Montelena 1973, Chalone Vineyard 1974, Spring Mountain 1973, Freemark Abbey 1972, David Bruce 1973, Veedercrest 1973.

French Chardonnay:  Meursault Charmes 1973, Beaunne Clos des Mouches 1973, Batard-Montrachet 1973, Puligny-Montrachet

California Cabernet Sauvignon:  Stags Leap Cellars 1973, Ridge Monte Bello 1971, Mayacamas 1971, Clos Du Val 1972 (1st vintage)

1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970, Freemark Abbey 1969

French Cabernet Sauvignon:  Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1970, Chateau Haut-Brion 1970, Chateau Montrose 1970, Chateau Leoville-Las Cases 1971, 

The wine world was shocked when Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena 1973, from winemaker Mike Grgich, was named the top chardonnay with releases from Chalone and Spring Mountain placing third and fourth.

I have recently tasted impressive village and premier cru chardonnay from Meursault Charmes and Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy, wines that command hundreds of dollars per bottle.  In 1976, the showing of our reasonably priced California releases in Paris turned the wine world upside down.

Also, on that day, the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 scored slightly higher that the iconic Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion which brought instant credibility and California wines exploded onto the world market.

On May 24, 2006, exactly thirty years after the Judgment in Paris, a reprise tasting of the original ten red wines was held in California

Judging at the 1976 Paris Tasting

with both local and French experts.  After thirty years in the cellar, not only did Paul Draper’s Ridge Monte Bello Vineyard 1971 prevail, but the top five were all from California.

The prestigious Monte Bello Vineyard lies in the northern Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley and produces a sensational wine each vintage.  The latest Ridge Monte Bello 2015 ($215), a blend of cabernet sauvignon (77%), merlot (11%), petit verdot (7%)and cabernet Franc (5%) boast several ratings in the high nineties.

“Somm3” also provides the platform for today’s wine experts to gather for a new Judgement tasting.  Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson, owner of Verve wines in New York and San Francisco assembled an esteemed panel to compare old world Burgundy wines with pinot noir from California and other regions throughout the world. Without giving the results away, California wines were competitive.  

I have recently visited and tasted red wines (pinot noir) from Saint Romain, Meursault and Volnay in Burgundy. I also live in Sonoma County, near the Russian River Valley and am familiar with wines from the top appellations in California and Oregon.  In a blind tasting, with no disrespect to the superb French wines, it would be difficult for my palate to stray far from home.

Dustin Wilson’s new Judgement tasting in New York

As someone who appreciates the mystique of wine, the Somm trilogy is, in many ways, an education series, designed to introduce the viewer to the complexities of the industry, from farming through mouthfeel. It reinforces the perspective of wine as an art form with each vintage beginning as a blank canvas.  

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About Lyle W. Norton

Free-lance writer specializing if wine, food, travel and jazz reviews. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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