The Paris Tasting that Changed the Fate of California Wines with Mark Gudgel, Author of The Rise of Napa Valley Wineries



Are you curious about the most important historic tasting that put California wines on the map? What unique challenges did pioneer winemakers face in California? What would surprise you about how the California wine industry developed?

In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with author Mark Gudgel.

You can find the wines we discussed here.


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Three of you will win a copy of Mark’s new book, Rise of Napa Valley Wineries: How the Judgment of Paris Put California Wine on the Map.


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  • When did Mark realize he wanted to write about wine?
  • How did Mark develop his professional interest and expertise in genocide education?
  • What has been the worst moment of Mark’s writing career so far and what did he learn from it?
  • Which moments have created the best memories in Mark’s writing career?
  • What’s the significance of the “Judgement of Paris” and why was Mark drawn to the story?
  • What will you learn in Mark’s new book, Rise of Napa Valley Wineries?
  • Who were some of the early pioneers of Napa Valley wineries?
  • How were the Judgement of Paris reenactments done?
  • What are aged California wines like?
  • What are some of the inaccuracies in the movie Bottle Shock?
  • Why was Robert Mondavi instrumental in transforming the California wine industry?


Key Takeaways

  • I didn’t realize how pivotal the 1976 Paris tasting was not only for California wines but also for other New World wines around the globe. With Mark’s explanation, I can see how its ramifications spread. What was so amazing was that these wines were tasted blind. No one knew the identity of the wines, and they were judged by French experts. It was the French experts saying California at the top.
  • It was fascinating to hear about the unique challenges pioneer winemakers faced in California. It’s a wonder that they persevered in the face of such huge obstacles.
  • I also enjoyed hearing about the surprising way the California wine industry developed.


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About Mark Gudgel

Dr. Mark Gudgel is an eighteen-year veteran of teaching high school English and presently serves as assistant professor of education at the College of Saint Mary in Omaha. Gudgel is a Fulbright Scholar and a sought-after speaker. His 2012 TED talk is entitled “Empowering young people to repair the world.” After honeymooning in Wine Country, Mark and his wife, Sonja, began a wine blog and soon after he was recruited as a regular correspondent for American Winery Guide. From there, Gudgel went on to write for Food & Spirits, Dine, Edible Omaha, and numerous other publications. Today, Gudgel is a regular contributor to Edible Marin & Wine Country and Napa Valley Life magazines. Gudgel’s book on teaching about the Holocaust, Think Higher Feel Deeper: Holocaust Education in the Secondary Classroom, was released from Teachers College Press in 2021.

His forthcoming book, The Rise of Napa Valley Wineries: How the Judgment of Paris Put California Wine On The Map, focuses on the wine industry and issues that surround it, and will be released from History Press in May of 2023. Gudgel is also the President of the board of directors of the vinNEBRASKA Foundation, which raises money for local charities and offer scholarships to aspiring culinary arts students and wine professionals. Presently, in addition to academic research and teaching, Gudgel is working on another book on the Napa Valley. When he isn’t teaching or writing, Gudgel runs marathons, volunteers at his kids’ school, and plays board games with his family. He lives in Omaha with his wife, Sonja, and their children, Titus and Zooey.




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Mark Gudgel (00:00):
What happened in France in 1976 is that the walls surrounding the mythology of superior French terroir were raised to the ground. And it was then reinforced time and time again that world class wine is made all around the world in Australia, in New Zealand, in Chile and South Africa, in the United States. Prior to that, there was very little export market for anything that wasn’t French. And the reason that today you can buy an Argentine Malbec in the grocery store is because of this tasting in 1976.

Natalie MacLean (00:32):
Wow. I didn’t realize it was so pivotal. But when you put it in that sort of context, I can see how its ramification spread. What was so amazing was that these wines were tasted blind, no one knew the identity of the wines, and they were judged by French experts. It was the French experts saying California was at the top.


Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places and amusingly awkward social situations? Well, that’s the blend here on the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie MacLean, and each week I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please and let’s get started.

Welcome to episode 236. Are you curious about the most important historic tasting that put California wines on the map? What you challenges did pioneer winemakers face in California? And what would surprise you about how the wine industry developed in that state? In today’s episode, you’ll hear stories and tips that answer those questions and more in my chat with Dr. Mark Gudgel about his new book, the Rise of Napa Valley Wineries: How the Judgment of Paris Put California Wine On the Map. It focuses on the wine industry and the issues that surround it.

Now, a quick update on my memoir Wine Witch on Fire: Rising from the Ashes of Divorce, Defamation, and Drinking Too Much. There are signed copies of my books in many bookstores now. I’ll include a link in the show notes. If there isn’t a store close to you that has them, just email me and I will mail you personally signed book plates. If you’ve read the book, I would love to hear from you at [email protected].

The US launch and the launch for this book around the world outside Canada happened yesterday, and I am so excited. So now you can find this book in bookstores as well as online in other countries. Of course if it’s not in your local bookstore, you can always find it online. If you haven’t got your copy yet and would like to support it, and this podcast, please order it from any online book retailer no matter where you live. Every little bit helps spread the message in this book. I’ll put a link in the show notes to all of the retailers worldwide at

Here’s a review from Lynn Bachinski who lives in Fergus, Ontario. This is a witty, heartfelt read that also educates and informs. I really enjoyed the style of Natalie’s writing. It’s down to earth, witty and charming. It pulls you in and helps you become part of the story. Her humour is another area that I greatly appreciated, especially as some parts could make me feel some sadness and anger. The short chapters make for easy reading as you can put it down and then resume easily. I think that this is important given our busy lives. I find books can consume me and then I read them quickly but neglect other things. This book allowed me to get on with other things and then happily enjoy returning to the book even if some of the monologue was emotionally difficult. As with any good read, it gets you to self-reflect, think about challenging issues, and expand your knowledge. In this case, it was succinct, fun and often very funny, while also educational. I must admit that I’ve not given much thought to the treatment of women and people of colour within the wine industry. I have focused a lot on discrimination, racism, sexism in the broader world, and pride myself in practicing from a social justice perspective, having worked within the legal system and then the education industry for a total of about 25 years, and well acquainted with social injustices and how we can perpetuate its continuation without always being aware of our actions or words. This is the educational component that I have enjoyed about this memoir, and it is my third and most favorite aspect of the book. Overall, I really enjoyed it, lots of ups and downs, funny, sad, touching, infuriating, all emotions that I expect from a memoir. Kudos to Natalie for managing all that has happened and sharing it publicly. I give it five stars as it was entertaining, informative, and stimulating everything I expect from a good read her book delivered on the three components that made me want to read it to the end while I wait. Impatiently for her next book.

Thank you, Lynn.


Okay on with the show. All right, before I introduce our guest, let me just say that three of you are going to win a copy of his terrific new book, which we’re going to talk about in a moment. All you have to do is email me at [email protected] and tell me you want to win a copy. I’ll choose three people randomly from those who email me. All right, back to our guest. Dr. Mark Gudgel taught high school English for 18 years, and he’s currently assistant professor of education at the College of St. Mary Omaha. He is a Fulbright Scholar, which is major brainiac, and delivered a popular TED talk entitled Empowering Young People to Repair the World. After honeymooning in wine country, Mark and his wife Sonya began a wine blog and soon after he became a regular correspondent for American Winery Guide. From there, Mark went on to write for Food and Spirits, Dine, Edible Omaha, and numerous other publications.

Today he’s the regular contributor to Edible Marin & Wine Country and Napa Valley Life Magazines. Mark’s new book, which we’re going to talk about today, is called The Rise of Napa Valley Wineries: How the Judgment of Paris Put California Wine On the Map. It focuses on the wine industry and issues that surround it. He is also the president of the Board of Directors for vinNebraska Foundation, which raises money for local charities and offers scholarships to aspiring culinary art students and wine professionals. When he isn’t teaching or writing. Mark runs marathons, volunteers at his kids’ school and plays board games with his family. He’s a very patient man. He lives in Omaha with his wife Sonya and their children, Titus and Zoe, and he joins us now from his office, I believe in Omaha. Welcome, Mark. So great to have you here with us.

Mark Gudgel (07:33):
Thank you so much. I’m really honoured to be here.

Natalie MacLean (07:36):
Awesome, awesome, awesome. Okay, so before we talk about the book specifically, which is just coming out as we talk now, what was the exact moment you realized you actually wanted to write about wine?

Mark Gudgel (07:49):
It had never occurred to me to write a blog in my life. As an English major. I write a lot and I think English majors, all of us probably aspire to publish on some level. And I had written a book of poetry and I had written a teacher’s guide to the genocide in Darfur and things like that, but it hadn’t dawned on me to blog about wine. And then when we got back from our honeymoon, my wife said hey we should do this. And I thought, yeah, that’s a great idea. And it went so well that people reached out and hired us.

Natalie MacLean (08:22):
That’s terrific. Wow. And yeah, I buried the lead there. But how do you get from writing about the genocide and Darfur  to wine? What was your interest on that very serious issue?

Mark Gudgel (08:35):
Sure. I think when people ask me about my field, my professional writing up to this point has largely been genocide studies. And I specifically look at genocide education and how we teach about genocide, be it the Holocaust, the genocide of the Armenians, that which took place in Bosnia in the 1990s, and countless other examples. I worked in Rwanda for six years, so I’ve taught classes on genocide for most of my career. And I’m currently studying and researching the way American teachers teach about genocide.

Wine is a hobby and I’m glad to be able to write about it. I’m glad to be able to taste it. I’ve stopped reviewing it. I’ve come to find reviewing wine objectionable because it’s art, and I think that art makes our lives beautiful. And so yes, I love having art in my life. And because of the seriousness of my professional studies, it’s also allows me a nice sense of balance.

Natalie MacLean (09:34):
Terrific. We won’t go down this rabbit hole too deeply, but what drew you to the topic of genocide itself? Why that among all kinds of other issues in the world?

Mark Gudgel (09:45):
So as art goes, I think wine and culinary arts and painting and sculpting and countless other examples are all equally beautiful more or less. And it’s a matter of what you appreciate. When it comes to genocide, I don’t how you could argue there’s anything more urgent or immediate or important. This is the absolute bottom tier of Maslow. This isn’t about my self-esteem. This is about death and often the deaths of millions, and it’s completely preventable. And so that I think is where I see a great sense of urgency in it. And I believe that education is probably our best shot at preventing it.

Natalie MacLean (10:32):
How admirable. So maybe you could take us kind of to the high and low of your writing career. It can be writing or wine writing specifically. But what’s kind of been the worst moment? We’ll end with a happy ending. But what has been your worst moment so far in writing?

Mark Gudgel (10:48):
Oh man. Anybody who writes will tell you that the bad moments are pretty ubiquitous. You pour your life and your heart into something and then somebody lambast you for it. I just wrote a really good article and the first comment on my Instagram was some guy whining about me not including his corporate winery, and it was just like shut up.

Natalie MacLean (11:10):
Small world for these people.

Mark Gudgel (11:15):
But honestly, I think that the worst moment by far, I wrote a book to teaching about the genocide and Darfur back in I think it was 2010. And I really believed in my youthful naivete that this book was going to be the fuel that teachers needed to make this topic the point of emphasis for a generation that was already empowered and ready to act. And I was going to be an integral part in bringing about an end to the genocide and Darfur.

Natalie MacLean (11:46):
Wow, that’s ambitious.

Mark Gudgel (11:48):
I thought this book would really be a key. And as far as I can tell, very few people read book. The genocide in Darfur, many people would argue, ended. Although if you’re keeping up with current events, Darfur is the western region and what’s happening today is mostly in the south. But Sudan is still in tremendous turmoil whether genocide is occurring actively or not. And so it was really eye-opening to me to realize that I had put a lot of time and effort into accomplishing very little. So that was a rough moment for me, but it was also a great learning experience.

Natalie MacLean (12:24):
That’s good that you can recover and carry on. What would be the best moment of your career so far?

Mark Gudgel (12:31):
Well being interviewed by you of course.

Natalie MacLean (12:33):
Ah, that was a setup.

Mark Gudgel

I’m sorry.

Natalie MacLean

We discussed that fully before the. No, we didn’t. OK. Your second best moment?

Mark Gudgel (12:41):
I’ve had some really great experiences in a number of. I once had a former foreign exchange student from the Netherlands reach out to me on social media with a picture of my poetry book, which was published even before the Guide to Darfur 15 years ago. And he said, did you really write this? And I was like, yeah. And he goes, I found it in a used bookstore in Amsterdam. And I love imagining how it got there.

Natalie MacLean (13:06):

Mark Gudgel (13:06):
But I recently sent a copy of my book to one of the people who I interviewed for it. And his, I’d love to just read you his comments about it. Well, I don’t have them handy. I’m sorry.

Natalie MacLean (13:18):
That’s alright.

Mark Gudgel (13:18):
I could probably pull it up in my text messages. But he complimented it in a way that. So he said that he loved the way that I had woven the narrative and the stories of these people together. And that was a serious goal of mine in writing the book, because I regard Khalid Hosseini as the greatest author of our generation. And his book And the Mountains Echoed does exactly that. It weaves together these stories over space and time in a way that I’ve never seen in another piece of writing. And while I knew I couldn’t mimic him, because as an English teacher, I know what great writing is, and I don’t do that. I write well, but I’m not a great writer and I’m at peace with that. I just try to get a little better every day. But when he made comments about my book that were the kind of comments that I had made about And the Mountain Echoed, I was elated.

Natalie MacLean (14:09):
Oh, that’s fabulous. When a careful reader really gets you, understands what you’re doing, and thinks you’re doing it well, there’s no better compliment

Mark Gudgel


Natalie MacLean

Or affirmation. That’s fantastic, Mark. So in retrospect, would you have done anything differently on your path to get where you are today?

Mark Gudgel (14:26):
I believe firmly that if you’re happy where you are, you don’t get to complain about how you got there. And so I don’t really believe in regrets. And I have to be really cautious because I mean, yeah, if I knew at age 20 what I know now, I would’ve gotten an oenology degree from Davis. But I wouldn’t have met my wife. I wouldn’t have my amazing children. My daughter turned six today, and we already went out to breakfast together before school. And I, I’m quite pleased with my life and so I don’t think I get to make those changes.

Natalie MacLean (14:57):
Lovely. Wow. So what drew you to the story of the judgment of Paris? And you can preface that if you want as to what this was, however you want to tackle it. But as some people listening may not know what exactly it was. But what drew you to it?

Mark Gudgel (15:14):
Absolutely. I think my initial introduction to it was what many people’s probably is.  And that was the movie Bottle Shock with Alan Rickman, which is a delightfully entertaining movie. It’s not terribly accurate. But be that as it may, it’s a lot of fun. And I love Alan Rickman, rest in peace. So that was my introduction to it. But the more I looked into it and the more I studied wine, this is the single most important thing that has ever happened in the world of viticulture. Full stop.

Natalie MacLean (15:42):
Not just California. But all viticulture?

Mark Gudgel (15:44):
No, this is the most important thing that has ever happened to wine. And what it is for anyone who hasn’t read my book, or the only other book about it, which is by George Taber, is a blind wine tasting that took place in 1976. It was put on by an Englishman in Paris. And they tasted California wines and some tremendous French wines. And a highly credentialed panel of French judges preferred the American wines. And a journalist, George Taber from Time Magazine, was there and wrote the story. And so that’s it in a nutshell.

But what happens after that and what’s so brilliant about this, and I don’t even know if Taber really pieced it all together at that time, but he called this in Time Magazine “The Judgment of Paris” which is an illusion to the event that sparked the Trojan War. And we don’t have to get too deep into Greek mythology, but he was alluding to the event that leads to the invasion of Troy. Calling this the Judgment of Paris when Iris, the goddess of Discord, is not invited to the wedding of the parents of the warrior Achilles. And so she shows up at the gates and pitches in this apple that says to the Fairest One. And the goddesses wanted and Zeus is smart enough to say I’m not going to tell you who’s the Fairest. But Paris, Prince Paris of Troy. And so he chooses Aphrodite, which ticks off the others.

And anyway, the reason I bring it up and the reason I think it is significant and I allude to it a lot in my book, is that the walls come down. That’s how Troy is conquered. They lead the Trojan horse inside and burn the place to the ground. What happened in France in 1976 is that the walls surrounding the mythology of superior French terroir were raised to the ground. And it was then discovered, and then reinforced subsequently time and time again, that world class wine is made all around the world. In Australia, in New Zealand, in Chile and South Africa, in the United States, in Canada where you are. They make phenomenal wines all around the world. Prior to that, there was very little export market for anything that wasn’t French. And the reason that today you can buy an Argentine Malbec in the grocery store is because of this tasting in 1976.

Natalie MacLean (18:02):
Wow. I didn’t realize it was so pivotal. But when you put it in that sort of context, I can see how its ramification spread because really I mean what was so amazing was that these wines were tasted blind. No one knew the identity of the wines and they were judged by French experts. So there was no rigging. There was no trying to slip in or whatever. It was the French experts saying California at the top.

Mark Gudgel (18:28):
Precisely, precisely. In fact, Spurrier remarked. Steven Spurrier, who was the Englishman who put on the tasting, remarked repeatedly, he’s like I didn’t skimp on the French wines. Those were the best French wines I had access to. These are first growths, almost all of them. Puligny-Montrachet and Chateau Mouton. I mean stuff you’ve heard of, right.  Even if you’re not a wine person, you’ve heard of these.

Natalie MacLean (18:49):
And they had the first growth Bordeaux, too, right?

Mark Gudgel


Natalie MacLean

Chateau Margaux.

Mark Gudgel (18:53):
Margaux, Mouton, Montrose, yes.

Natalie MacLean (18:57):
Wow. So the best of the best. They weren’t easy gaming it. Wow.

Mark Gudgel (19:01):
No, not at all. Not at all. And Spurrier did not think this would happen.

Natalie MacLean (19:06):
Why do you think he organized it in the first place then?

Mark Gudgel (19:09):
Well, he was nudged certainly. His American partner, Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher, had been tasting with a woman named Dupius or had been corresponding with a woman named Dupius in California, and had been convinced that these wines were probably worth tasting. So she toured and thought they were. And so then Steven Spurrier and his wife Bella toured and really believed that they were worth tasting. And so they thought they’d have these French judges taste the American wines. Great, no problem.

And then what Spurrier realized very much to his credit was that the French judges were going to say a few nice things and dismiss the wines because they were American. And so when they come in –  and this is all in my book – but when the judges arrive, he says I’ve changed the rules. If you don’t like it, if you don’t agree, I’ll change them back. But I thought we should taste these American wines alongside some of the premier wines of France in what he called a friendly glasses across the ocean tasting. And this of course is happening in 1976, right? 200 years after the United States won the Revolutionary War with the help of the French. And so it’s very much a tribute to General Lafayette. It’s intended to be a sort of a friendly thing, and it ends up sort of being anything but.

Natalie MacLean (20:26):
Wow. So you’ve mentioned George Taber’s book, the only other one which was published years ago. How is your book different? They both focus on the Judgment of Paris. George Taber was there as the Time correspondent you mentioned. But I’m just curious how they differ.

Mark Gudgel (20:41):
Yeah, it was Warren Winiarski had the same question.

Natalie MacLean (20:45):
Oh yes. A winemaker famous winemaker.

Mark Gudgel (20:48):
Yes, yes. He made the ’73 Stags Leap Wine Cellars that won the red tasting. And it’s phenomenal. And he’s phenomenal. He’s an incredible human. But I provide a lot more of the backstory. My first – it’s a five chapter book,  about 200 pages long, so they’re long chapters. My first chapter is really a history of the Napa Valley up to prohibition. And I started in what I frequently, I stole a word from one of my favorite other writers about Napa, but I frequently refer to that period of Napa as Prelapsarian, right before the fall of Man. This was the Garden of Eden. So we looked at the Ashochimi people, the Wappo, and really tried to provide a contextual overview for what it is that gets Napa to this place that makes it so special that something like this even had the potential to occur.

Natalie MacLean (21:35):
And what was that that you discovered?

Mark Gudgel (21:37):
Well, I mean there’s so much. One of the things is that the North American Plate and the Farallon Plate did us a huge favour and created this incredible fertile riparian valley that contains half of the soil types in the world in a space that’s 30 miles by five miles. So that’s incredible. It is positioned just north of San Pablo Bay, but has the Mayacamas separating it from the cooling forces of the Pacific side. I mean, it is the perfect place to grow many grape varietals, although of course that is changing with the changing climate. We can talke about that more. But it really is a phenomenal place.

And the second thing, when I just remarked on this, I was out in Napa last week with my wife speaking at a conference and doing a few other things and tasting of course and visiting friends. And I remarked to her every time we drive up 29 or the Silverado Trail, I’m like can you imagine 150 years ago coming to this place and being like yeah, I think I’ll quarry some stone and see if I can’t grow grapes here. I mean, these pioneers if I may were just some of the most bold, ambitious, probably outlandish people imaginable to think that they were going to make a go of it. And had they not laid that groundwork and then had people like Mondavi and others after Prohibition had not reinvigorated the place, we wouldn’t have this.

Natalie MacLean (23:05):
Wow. Tell us about a couple of those people that were the early pioneers? The more colourful ones or the ones that made the best contributions.

Mark Gudgel (23:12):
Sure, sure. So early on, Tabo Perot and the Beringer Brothers are some fun stories. Tabo Perot is the one that gave the Beringer Brothers German immigrants. And Tabo was Mexican. The Beringers were German, of course, and he named them Los Hermanos, which is the name of one of their famous vineyards now. And they were both in close proximity near what today is Saint Helena. There are some great stories about them. One that’s in my book, Tabo Perot digs these incredible wine caves at what today is Spring Mountain Vineyards and he has the Beringers over one night. And he says, you know what my caves are so strong, they’d withstand a blast of dynamite. Oh these three guys are drunk. And so they decide to find out. And those caves did not in fact sustain a blast of dynamite. And I believe they finished excavating them two years ago.

Natalie MacLean

Oh my goodness.

Mark Gudgel

So I mean, there’s some great kind of funny, silly stories like that. But that next wave of pioneer are, these are some amazing humans, Cesare Mondavi and of course his son’s, Robert and Peter and Rosa as well. Cesare’s wife deserve a tremendous amount of credit for putting the Napa Valley on the map. And Robert, of course, with his own winery after the fact in Oakville.

Natalie MacLean (24:28):
What did his father do to set the groundwork? Because we hear a lot about Robert Mondavi. But his father, what was his contribution?

Mark Gudgel (24:36):
Rosa probably gets most of the credit for convincing Cesare to go take a look at the old Charles Krug winery. Charles Krug is probably the oldest commercial winery in the valley. It was founded by a Prussian named Charles Krug. And it’s a beautiful structure today but it was completely dilapidated when the Mondavis found out that it was for sale and Cesare and Rose already had an investment in a winery called Sunny St. Helena, which today is Merryvale. And so they weren’t terribly interested. Pardon me, Cesare wasn’t but Robert really thought this was something they ought to look into. And Peter was back on furlough, I believe, at that time. And so they went up and checked it out, and they bought it with I think, well over a hundred acres, I think $75,000 maybe, which thinking about what it’s worth today is a lot of fun, but its quite an investment.

But I think they started producing wines. They wanted to produce exceptional quality wines, and prohibition had really destroyed the American palette for wine. Very few wineries had been able to carry on. Those that had were mostly selling grapes or juice concentrate because we weren’t actually serious about prohibition. So the male head of the household could produce 200 gallons of wine at home if he wanted to. I mean, that’s stupid. Just let professionals make it at that point. But instead, as I mentioned in my book, Tom Poughkeepsie buys grapes from the Napa Valley and ferment him in a lead clawfoot tub in his garage and dumps enough sugar into it that he can choke it down, and that becomes what we think wine is unfortunately. And it takes a long time for the American wine palate to recover. But the Mondavis had a lot to do with that. So did the Davies at Schramsberg who had a vision for making sparkling wine and a number of other really extraordinary people. Joe Heitz comes to mind.

Natalie MacLean (26:25):
What did Joe Heitz contribute?

Mark Gudgel (26:27):
Well, he’s the one that Spurrier called the Charming Curmudgeon. And Heitz made exceptional wines and he was completely uncompromising. He also had a very distinct vision for wine. Heitz believed that he was a winemaker and that he would focus on that and that the wine growers or the grape growers were a different group of people and that they could focus elsewhere. So he would buy the grapes and make the wine. And that was a different approach, certainly a different approach than the French vigneron who did everything. But he produced some extraordinary wines. His Cabernet Sauvignon was tasted at the Judgment of Paris.

Natalie MacLean (27:05):
How did it fare there?

Mark Gudgel (27:07):
Well enough, it didn’t win. The winning red wine was the ’73 Stags Leap Wine Cellars, which was made from three year old vines. Grapes harvested from three year old vines, which again that’s phenomenal. Tears down a stereotype that maybe we produce.

Natalie MacLean (27:22):
It does because we traditionally think that vines must age to about seven years before they start producing decent food.

Mark Gudgel (27:28):
And everybody loves to advertise their old vine. And that’s great because I do think old vines produce exceptional quality wines, but not uniquely. So the winemaker has a great deal to do with that. And then of course, the ’73 Chateau Montelena won the whites. But in subsequent tastings, Bernard Portet right next to Stag’s Leap had produced the Clos du Val that won the ’86 reenactment. They thought that one, because everybody thought after the judgment in ’76, they’re like, I think the American wines just drink better young and made all these dumb excuses. So they held the tasting again in ’86. And this time it was another Napa wine, but it was Clos du Val that won. And in ’96 and all the subsequent after that, it’s Ridge. Ridge Monte Bello that ages the best from the Santa Cruz AVA right, made by Paul Draper, who’s another wonderful person that I got to interview in writing this book.

Natalie MacLean (28:15):
He’s fascinating. What do you think he contributed to California wine?

Mark Gudgel (28:19):
Oh, man. One thing that Paul did that I think is noteworthy, and this is not advice I would give anybody, but he didn’t formally study wine making. I guess he did study it, just not in college. He studied it by drinking extraordinary wines and making them alongside other people and learning by doing. But he didn’t go to Davis or any of the other great programs. So he’s interesting in that way.

Natalie MacLean (28:43):
So do you think he’s a less technical wine maker?

Mark Gudgel (28:46):
No not at all. He is so good. I got to spend a whole day with him at Ridge. And I mean that guy, it probably goes without saying but he’s forgotten more than I know. And he has really been producing some of the best wines in the world for a generation and a half now. I mean, those Monte Bellos are. They don’t miss. We drank a 2011 together, and 2011 is a vintage that a lot of troglodytes wanted to malign when it came out. The 2011’s are phenomenal. And so he had said what do you want to drink? And I was like, whatever you want. And he opened an ’11 on purpose just to show how well it had done.

Natalie MacLean (29:22):
Yeah, tough vintage is kind of the proof of great winemakers when they can still sure produce something that is not only good, but can age.

Mark Gudgel (29:30):
Oh, yeah. I want to add to that just because I think it’s so important. I was with Tim Mondavi last week. Tim is one of Robert’s sons. And I was with Tim Mondavi at Continuum, his property last week. And he poured me at 2020 on purpose, and it was extraordinary. And I went this is the wine I’m going to reference when people want to beat up on the 2020s. Because no, it’s got everything to do with wine making.

Natalie MacLean (29:54):
That’s amazing. And when they did these reenactments, were they tasting wines that had aged as opposed to new vintages?

Mark Gudgel (30:02):
Yeah, so to my knowledge, they’ve never reenacted the white wine tasting with original vintages. But yeah, they used original vintage wines in the ’86 and some after that as well, to see how well they’d aged.

Natalie MacLean (30:13):
As were in the 1976 tasting? It was the exact same vintages were moved forward to these reenactments?

Mark Gudgel (30:19):
Right. And that’s why, so the ’69 Freemark Abbey, which was made by Jerry Luper, was not included in any of the subsequent tastings because Freemark Abbey said that they thought it had passed its prime. Whether it had or not, I couldn’t say. I’ve had some old Freemark aAbeys that I thought were great.

Natalie MacLean (30:34):
So that is a misconception, I guess, that California wines don’t age.

Mark Gudgel (30:39):
Yes, I think there’s some rocket juice being produced. The people who were slaves to Parker’s one hundred point ratings are producing these chewy over the top wines that we sometimes kind of disparage as rocket juice that I enjoy, frankly. But I don’t know that those are terribly age worthy. But I was out with a couple of wonderful sommeliers who became friends a couple weeks ago when we opened a 20 year old bottle of Smith Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon that, I mean, these are a couple of the best palates in the world. And it knocked all of our socks off. We were just floored by it.

Natalie MacLean (31:16):
What does that aged California wine taste like? I think I’ve tasted more aged Bordeaux just because they’ve been available to me than aged California wine. So what happens, do you think –  0r you can be specific to the wine you tasted – as it aged. Does it age differently from a Bordeaux or what?

Mark Gudgel (31:35):
It can. They’re all different, of course, but the ’03 Smith we were drinking. Smith Madrone wines are mountain fruit, high elevation Spring Mountain, and they’ve been making them there since the early 1970s. So they absolutely know what they’re doing, but they have a leanness to them that and I think, I don’t want to call them acid driven because I think that conjures something that maybe isn’t fully accurate, but the fruit had held onto this 20 year old wine magnificently. It would’ve aged for another 50 years. We shouldn’t have opened it. I mean, it was beautiful and fun to share and talk about. And 50 years from now, I probably won’t be drinking anything. But it was glorious. But Smith Madrone’s Rieslings – that what I’ll drink with you later today – I mean, I had a bottle last night with some friends, but I drink old Smith Madrone Rieslings all the time. They age as well as anything made in Alsace in Germany.

Natalie MacLean (32:28):
That’s fascinating. Now you said the movie Bottle Shock, which was supposed to be about the Judgment of Paris, was inaccurate in some ways. How is it inaccurate?

Mark Gudgel (32:38):
Oh my, where to begin? It does some things really well, in addition to being entertaining, I think it highlights the Barrett family. And I think that they are very important to the history of the Napa Valley and specifically to the rebirth of the Napa Valley. I think Jim Barrett was a visionary.

Natalie MacLean (32:54):
And who was he?

Mark Gudgel (32:54):
So Jim Barrett as portrayed, I think by Bill Pullman in the movie, was much like Hugh Davies’ father Jack and his wife Jamie and others who just kind of got fed up with corporate America. Fed up with their busy city lives. Decided that the rural lifestyle and winemaking held an appeal to them. And so Jim Barrett and some partners buy Chateau Montelena, bring it back to life. It was a winery that had been built by a man named Tubbs back in the 19th century, and a guy who made his money in rope of all things. And so he brings this winery back to life. He hires a Croatian winemaker, Mike Grgich and puts his son Bo, who today is still at the winery and at the helm, puts Bo in the cellars and they produce some really phenomenal wines.

Natalie MacLean (33:41):
So that aspect of the movie captured Jim Barrett well, but?

Mark Gudgel (33:46):
Well, they make Jim Barrett the winemaker, for example, and he’s not.

Natalie MacLean (33:50):

Mark Gudgel (33:51):
And they make Steven Spurrier into a jerk, right. He’s brilliantly portrayed by Rickman. But the idea was to make an Englishman unlikable. And Steven Spurrier was one of the most likable humans ever, wine trade or otherwise. He was congenial and kind and wonderful. And he really didn’t like being portrayed that way. And then they just completely, the other thing that the movie does that’s disastrous, is just completely omits the story of Warren Winiarski whose red wine wins the exact same tasting the same day. And if that’s so noteworthy than it’s almost a lie by omission.

Natalie MacLean (34:28):
Wow. I wonder why they chose to leave that out. I guess creative.

Mark Gudgel (34:33):
Yeah, Hollywood. I can’t speak to it.

Natalie MacLean (34:36):
Yeah. Oh, well. And so you said the book has five chapters. You talked about the early pioneers. Back to Robert Mondavi, do you think his primary contribution was that he was such an excellent marketer in terms of promoting California wine all around the country? Or were there other things that he did?

Mark Gudgel (34:55):
He did two things I think extremely well. And one of them was absolutely promotion. Selling California wine when he began doing it would be selling gasoline to someone who drives a Tesla. It was well done. He had his work cut out for him, and he nailed it. And of course, his brother Peter made it a lot easier by making excellent wine. But the other thing that he did, the thing that set Napa apart was that there was nobody stuck on their tradition. There was nobody who viewed what they knew as proprietary. And so not only did Robert Mondavi bring a of great people together. He hired Warren Winiarski. And when Warren Winiarski left him, he hired Mike Grgich. And when Mike Grgich left him, he hired Zelma Long, one of the early women winemakers of the valley. And he had so much to do with bringing folks together.

But he also was instrumental along with André Tchelistcheff and a number of others in getting people together and going okay what are we learning? What do we know? Let’s share information. Because Mondavi probably more than anybody else believed that the rising tide would raise all the boats. And his was the biggest boat but he wanted to see them all succeed. And I think he gets so much credit for what happened.

Natalie MacLean (36:17):
And why do you think he succeeded in marketing where others didn’t? Now he had a good product to sell because of what his brother was doing, but what was it about him that convinced people to try California wines to buy them?

Mark Gudgel (36:30):
In my study of the valley and in my time there, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a picture of him in which he wasn’t smiling. I’m up at Continuum of Estate last week. We walked by a statue, a bust of him that had been made that his son had acquired. And it’s kind of quietly, it’s not gaudy at all, but he’s got this sort of. Tim Mondavi said, I used to think he was glaring at me but now I see that he’s actually got a little smile on his face. And I think Robert was always smiling. I think that he was kind and likeable. And I didn’t know him but I know so many people who did. And I think you know you weren’t buying Mondavi wine. You were buying Robert Mondavi and I think it was an easy sell.

Natalie MacLean (37:12):
It’s true. Yeah, that is true for so many products and services. It’s really about the people behind them.

Mark Gudgel (37:20):

Natalie MacLean (37:26):
Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Mark. Here are my takeaways. Number one, I didn’t realize just how pivotal the 1976 Paris tasting was, not just for California wines, but also for other new world wines around the globe. Mark really helped me understand how its ramifications spread. And what so amazing was that all of these wines were tasted blind, no one knew their identity, and they were judged by French experts. It was the French experts saying that California wine was at the top. Number two, it was fascinating to hear about the unique challenges that pioneer winemakers faced in California. It’s a wonder that they persevered in the face of such huge obstacles. And three, I enjoyed hearing about the surprising ways in which the California wine industry developed.

In the show notes, you’ll find the full transcript of my conversation with Mark, links to his website and books, the video versions of these conversations on Facebook and YouTube live, and where you can order my memoir online now no matter where you live. That’s all in the show notes at Email me if you have a sip, tip, question or would like to be part of the book launch team at [email protected].

If you missed episode 23, go back and take a listen. I chat with winemaker Randall Grahm, who is a true blend of California wine wit and wisdom. I’ll share a short clip now to what your,

Randall Grahm (38:54):
The meantime Ranger has been very catchy, and it’s been helpful to my cause. The issue I have though is that we in California ultimately somehow need to get out of the shadow of our European colleagues and somehow learn how to redefine ourselves on our own terms rather than as something derivative or something referential to something else. Who wants to be the second best? Do you want to be your own thing? I think we in the New World have to get there somehow. I’m working on it, and I think the way to get there for me personally is try to figure out what can we do in the New World that can’t be done in the Old World that’s interesting and wonderful and pleasurable, but let’s do it and find the grapes that are uniquely suited to our sites, rather than take something else and try to make Burgundian style Pinot Noir or Romanée-Coti, like Syrah or Nebbiolo for example.

Natalie MacLean (39:58):
If you like this episode, please email or tell one friend about it this week, especially someone who’d be interested in the wine tips and stories we shared. You won’t want to miss next week when we continue our chat with Mark. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week, perhaps a full body California Cabernet. You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at Meet me here next week. Cheers.