By Anthony Zhang
May 24 is a day of celebration for wine lovers across America, as it marks the anniversary of The Judgment of Paris, an event that paved the way for the U.S. wine market to rapidly develop and, inevitably, boom. If you’re unfamiliar with the event, here’s a quick history lesson.
Organized by British wine expert Steven Spurrier, the famous Paris tasting event in 1976 was a competition in which 11 French judges participated in two blind tasting comparisons between California and French wine, focused on Chardonnay and Bordeaux/Cabernet Sauvignon.
What was anticipated to be a lighthearted competition between the world’s finest French wines and relatively unknown family-owned vineyards from America ended in an upset. To nearly everyone’s surprise, Californian wine rated best in both categories, transforming the wine industry. The competition established Napa Valley as a competitive player in the industry and opened the door for other regions across the wine world to do the same.
The Judgment of Paris increased awareness of the high quality of wine being produced in Napa. In honor of this event, which allowed winemaking to flourish in the United States, let’s reflect on how the industry has evolved, where it stands today, and what wine enthusiasts can look forward to in the years to come.
Where the U.S. Wine Industry Was
When the Prohibition Act was passed in 1919, it was a death sentence for taverns, distilleries, wineries and the entire alcohol trade in America. So, when the nationwide alcohol ban was lifted in 1933, wineries that were once prominent and reputable had to start from the beginning and rebrand.
The influence of Prohibition lingered for decades, forcing U.S. winemakers to not only rebuild their businesses but also to re-establish the industry in a country where it hadn’t existed for more than a decade. While more than 40 years had passed between the end of the Prohibition and the Judgment of Paris, wineries in America were still struggling.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, there were fewer than 350 wineries in the state of California before the Paris Wine Tasting occurred in 1976. In Napa Valley, specifically, there were fewer than 70. To put that into perspective, Vinepair reports there were 6,010 wineries in California (and nearly 16,400 wineries total across the United States) in November 2021.
The Judgment of Paris was a pivotal moment for wine, specifically in Napa Valley, because it elevated the entire industry across all regions. With almost a dozen French wine experts favoring Cabernets and Chardonnays from a start-up shop in California over bottles from French wineries with centuries of history, people from all over the world became familiar with brands like Stag’s Leap and Ridge Vineyards. Sales began to increase at a rapid pace and vast opportunities opened up for other U.S. wineries to follow suit.
Where It Is Today
Today, the United States is the fourth largest wine producer in the world and is one of the largest consumers of wine by volume. Simply put, this means Americans drink more wine, on average, than almost any other country.
As a result, the industry has evolved into a business that is currently valued at approximately $58 billion. Americans can be found sipping their favorite wine from a glass, bottle or can at restaurants, a scenic winery or from the comfort of their own home. Really, the options are limitless.
While industry growth has been steady, it hasn’t been seamless. As recently as 2020, the wine market dipped at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic. We saw a similar decline in sales during the 2008 recession, as the country worked to recover from economic upset.
But just last month, Gomberg & Fredrikson released a report that shows wine sales were up 16.8 percent in 2021 over the year before, pointing to a promising 2022. Despite ongoing challenges (and, sometimes, unexpected circumstances), the industry has evolved to a point where it is well-established, strong and consistently heading in a positive direction.
Where It’s Going
As we look ahead, the U.S. wine market is forecasted to grow annually by 7.67 percent from 2022 to 2025, according to Statista. With continued growth on the horizon, new trends are beginning to emerge. Take wine investing, for example.
What will always be true about wine is that it becomes rarer and, likely, more valuable with time. Think about how much a bottle of 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, one that was judged the best during The Judgment of Paris, would go for today? That’s right, a lot.
While the U.S. wine market has ebbed and flowed over the last forty-some years since California wines made history at the Judgment of Paris, the beverage has remained a primary part of America’s culture. What was once a struggling industry has evolved into the drink of choice for many, a lucrative business venture for those in the market and, most recently, an attractive investment opportunity for the everyday consumer to consider.
And none of it would have happened this way if one British wine expert hadn’t tried to best California all those years ago.
Anthony Zhang is co-founder and CEO of Vinovest, which is democratizing fine wine investing by providing investors with unparalleled access, liquidity and transparency. Vinovest makes it possible for everyday investors to own blue-chip wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux and beyond.