Friday, March 20, 2015

Before the Judgment of Paris, there was the Battle of Versailles: Different industry, same result

Before the Judgment of Paris, three words -- and an event -- of moment in the wine world, there was the Battle of Versailles, another event which pitted an upstart American industry against a dominant -- and domineering -- French counterpart. And once again the results were tectonic; and provided the protagonists with the fuel that drove them to previously unimaginable heights.

The industry of record in the Judgment of Paris was Wine; the industry of record in the Battle of Versailles was Fashion. The story of the Judgment of Paris is told in a book of the same name written by the only reporter present, George M. Taber. The story of the Battle of Versailles is recounted in a tome of the same name by Robin Givhan, Fashion Critic of the Washington Post and 2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fashion Criticism. Information about the Battle of Versailles used in this post is gleaned from an interview of the author by Renee Montagne on the March 19th edition of NPRs Morning Edition.

Prior to 1973, as was the case for the US wine industry prior to 1976, "Paris was everything" in the fashion industry and the American industry took its marching orders from the Parisian designers. "Whatever the French designers said was fashion, ... the Americans said, OK, that's fashion ..."

The Judgment of Paris (the event) took place at the Paris InterContinental Hotel on May 24, 1976 and pitted six Napa Chardonnays (vintage 1972 - 1974) and six Napa Cabernet Sauvignons (1969 - 1973) against four White Burgundies (1972 and 1973) and four Red Bordeauxs (1970 and 1971). The wines were tasted blind. Attendees, based on Taber's account, were the judges, Steven Spurrier (the event organizer), two unofficial observers, Taber, and the wait staff. Spurrier had secured the room at the hotel as a favor granted by the Food and Beverage Manager with the proviso that they had to be out before 6:00 pm as the room was committed to a wedding at that time. At the conclusion of the tasting, a California wine had been judged to be the best in each of the two categories.

The Battle of Versailles was held on November 28, 1973 at the Palace of Versailles and was at once a fundraiser to help in the restoration of the palace and a competition pitting five French couture designers against five up-and-coming American designers:
  • French designers
    • Yves St. Laurent
    • Hubert de Givenchy
    • Pierre Cardin
    • Emmanuel Ungaro
    • Marc Bohan (of Christian Dior)
  • American designers
    • Halston
    • Oscar de la Renta
    • Bill Blass
    • Anne Klein
    • Stephen Burrows
The setting is described by the author (Hint: It differs a bit from the Judgment-of-Paris setting):
... there are men in, like, full livery with the white wigs and the uniforms. And people are arriving and they are the jet set of the time. And the theater where this took place is gilded and filled with blue velvet seats and fleur-de-lis, you know, embroidered on the curtains and the chandeliers.
The French presentation at the Battle of Versailles lasted two hours while the American portion lasted 30 minutes. The French had constantly changing backdrops and a full orchestra to flesh out their effort while the American set was a sketch of the Eiffel Tower and its music was a taped Al Green and Barry White soundtrack.

The disparity in time and setting notwithstanding, the show was a huge success for the Americans. According to Givhan, "It was a predominantly French crowd and they went bonkers ..." for the Americans. One of the keys to the American success was their models, 10 of whom were black. Again, the author: "There was a context of black chic that made the models particularly attractive. It was cool. It was progressive to use black models."

According to Robert Parker (a 2001 comment reproduced in Taber's book), "The Paris Tasting destroyed the myth of French supremacy and marked the democratization of the wine world. It was a watershed in the history of wine." According to Givhan, things also changed significantly after the Battle of Versailles, especially the way that American designers saw themselves. "... their success at Versailles convinced them that no, what they were producing wasn't less than, it was different, but it was just as good and in many ways more relevant to the way that women lived their lives."

It must have been traumatic to have lived in Paris in the mid-1970s. The persons responsible for the maintenance of French superiority took blows in that timeframe that they never fully recoverd from. And I am still waiting for Napa to build that richly deserved statue of Steve Spurrier right in the heart of its revitalized downtown.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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