I think this has got to be one of my favourite episodes in the show. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, wine does not exist in a vacuum. It is interwoven into the history and symbolism of cultures around the world. In this episode Joe visits a winery which operates in Israel’s occupied territories, Matthew and Matthew explore the significance of art and wine at a winery which was previously Michelangelo’s private residence and Gizzi Erskine explores California’s turbulent wine history on board the Napa Wine Train. Travel, art, religion, politics and cuisine all combine to create, in my mind, one of the most topical pieces of wine television yet.
If the Napa tourist board is suddenly swamped with enquiries this week, I wouldn’t be surprised. I can’t imagine anything more idyllic then being seated in the restored Pullman carriages of the Napa Train, whizzing through sunlit vineyards and being served high end cuisine made using local produce. The Napa train travels along the same route as laid out by Samuel Brannan and the early California pioneers who brought tourists including writer Robert Louis-Stevenson to the region from San Francisco. I can see why Joe was disappointed not to get this gig – and I must admit I may just be a little bit jealous of Gizzi too!
Aboard this lovingly restored train Gizzi meets David Mahaffey, a winemaker from Heron Lake, and Loren Trefethan of Trefethan vineyard. Whilst enjoying glasses of Pinot Noir and Cabernet from both those vineyards (not jealous at all) they both tell Gizzi about California’s precarious wine history. It was a depressing story, full of vineyard pest epidemics (phylloxera) and then prohibition. As late as 1960 there were only twenty vineyards! This is extremely hard to believe given Napa’s iconic wine status now. What is even harder to believe was that it was the French who enabled Californian wine to be given the respect it fully deserves in 1976 at The Judgement of Paris, a wine competition in which California won first place in each category.
This year on 24 May it will be the fortieth anniversary of this momentous tasting. There are now over 400 wineries in Napa, books and films have been made about the competition and later this month The National Museum of American History is putting on an anniversary dinner with British wine merchant Stephen Spurrier (who organised the original event) and members of Napa’s leading wineries. One could argue though that this anniversary is not just a national celebration; The Judgement of Paris was the making of the Californian wine industry but it fundamentally initiated the concept and identity of New World wines. This is an anniversary which should be celebrated by wineries and wine drinkers worldwide. Being a fervent New World wine fan, I will definitely be raising a glass or two!