There are a handful of significant days throughout the year for wine shops. Some shops put more importance on them then others, but the more festive days are: Beaujolais Nouveau release day in November, Bastille Day, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, etc. As in any line of business, the necessity to elevate yourself over your competitors is obvious. Wine shops will try many different techniques to get you in the door to try and secure your business. Warehouse sales, private events, educational classes, and visits from important industry people are very popular methods of attraction. I had tried them all with success and also so-so results. Educational classes were the most popular and I loved teaching them. I did have visits scheduled from many winery owners and wine makers; some did private seminars for customers. They were always sold out. Some of my personal favorite guests were Dr. Ernst Loosen from Germany, Scott Osborn from Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes, Brooks Williams from Zaca Mesa Vineyards in Santa Barbara, and Leonardo LaCascio, the legendary owner of Winebow Importers. My favorite visitor was an author and historical icon in the world of wine.
In the spring of 2011 I received a phone call from a good friend of mine and director of wine operations for the company to which I was employed. We spoke all the time, and most of the time our calls were about sports and music. He is a ridiculous Pearl Jam fan and always asked me to go to concerts with him. This phone call was different though. Years earlier I had traveled to Italy with him and he had remembered a conversation we had about the book Judgment Of Paris by George Taber. It was about the historic 1976 Paris tasting that revolutionized the entire wine industry from that day forward. Taber was the only journalist to attend the event. He wrote for Time Magazine at the time. I normally cannot finish a book in a sitting for a few days, but I had taken it with me on a trip to NYC and read it cover to cover on the train trip back from NYC to upstate NY. I was fascinated with the story and the way Taber told the entire back story of each major winemaker involved in making the winning wines. He told how they came to be in the wine business, family history and emigration from their home countries during times of unrest. All of the individual stories connected at the end of the book when the wines were entered into the 1976 tasting. My friend said, “You’re a fan of George Taber right?” Of course I was, but he knew that already. He then then told me that George and his wife were driving back home to New Jersey and were going to be going through my area and were willing to make a stop to do a book signing a few months from then. I was excited. There had been book signings in my store before with people like Paula Deen and Corbin Bernsen, yes Corbin Bernsen, but none of those had anything to do with me or the wine shop. They were always a big to-do and great for sales. Now, I knew a wine writer whose first account of the event was more than thirty years old wouldn’t be a huge draw, but I was a fan none the less and excited. With the recent release of the Hollywood hit movie Bottle Shock only a year or two old at the time, which was a cinematic portrayal of one of the wineries involved in the 1976 tasting and Taber’s book, maybe we would have a good showing. I told my colleague that I would gladly host the event.
Now fast forward to the day of the event. I had set up a nice meet and greet with George Taber. He did not know what we were going to be to doing and most likely thought it was going to be just him sitting at a table with a few curious folks talking to him. My corporate team had sent us a few cases of two of his books, Judgment of Paris, and his newest release, A Toast to Bargain Wines; about sixty books of each. We had stanchioned off a decent size area of the wine shop and set Taber up with a table, chair, sharpie, and a bottle of water. I also ordered in five cases of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay to serve along with a cheese and charcuterie grazing station. All customers purchasing one of Taber’s books were invited to stay and try and the wine, snack, and mingle. It was an evening event and we took the late afternoon to set up. My desk was near the entrance to the wine shop and right on time, George and his wife walked into the shop. He introduced them and his wife quickly left to go shopping in the store for a few hours, which I thought was cute. George and I talked for a while. Even though I had many questions I wanted to ask him, I was a little star struck and just tried to act cool and professional, like it was no big deal. I showed him around and gave him a rundown of how we planned the evening to go. Admittedly, I let George know that because the event was essentially free and we didn’t sell tickets, I wasn’t sure how many people were going to attend. He was extremely nice and was happy with whatever the turnout would be.
The evening went off without a hitch. People began to show up before the scheduled start time of the signing, buying books, wine, and talking to George. Many of them were regular students of mine and there were many that I didn’t recognize. We were busy from start to finish and we even sold out of his books before the event was over. The Chateau Montelena was drinking fantastic and we almost sold all that I had brought in for the event to my surprise, it isn’t a cheap Chardonnay, about $40 a bottle. When the event was all said and done, I spoke with George and he said it was the best book signing he had done in a long time. I felt happy to hear that, because I didn’t want to disappoint a legend.
Without George Taber, would new world wines be where they are today? Most likely they would be and would be achieving success as they are today. But in 1976, they had no chance and no sightlines to a prosperous future; Taber gave them that with his history article in Time Magazine, which he later turned in his book Judgment of Paris. Today a bottle of the winning California wines are on display in the Smithsonian as part of true American history. Sometimes we don’t really know when we are making history or a bystander of something historical; George Taber got to do both.
“Last week in Paris, at a formal wine tasting organized by Spurrier, the unthinkable happened: California defeated all Gaul.”
~ George Taber, Judgment of Paris, Time Magazine, June 7, 1976