Joanne DePuy is an unsung hero in the wine trade

joanne depuy

Hear her interview on Wine Talks with Paul K:

Those of you who have never heard of her have surely heard of the Judgment of Paris: Without her, the tasting may have never happened. A newly married DePuy landed in Napa Valley in 1949 with her then-husband, who would eventually become a well-known business attorney, while her dream was to start a family. Anyone can ascertain that Napa was a different place then; she'll tell you that you didn't go out of your way to visit Yountville at the time, as it didn't have many attractions beyond its bars. (It's now home to the famed French Laundry.)

In the early 1970s, when the contemporary women's liberation movement was still in its early stages, DePuy found herself divorced with three kids and no vocation. Left alone to her wits, she asked herself what she enjoyed most. The answer: wine and tennis. She set out with the tall order of combining them with travel, knowing that what she had going for her was her drive and her smarts--as well as a tenuous entrée to such famed wine personalities as André Tchelistcheff and Lee Stewart. As she recalled during a recent appearance on my podcast, "Wine Talks with Paul K." (, she went on to organize over 140 tennis and wine trips and dozens of wine-only trips to England, France, South Africa, Australia, South America, China, and more--all without recourse to the internet, email, text messaging, or even a fax machine.

Quickly garnering a solid reputation as a wine tour operator, DePuy was the first woman to ever address the Napa Valley Vintners Association (then a good ol' boys club if there ever was one) with a speech on wine tourism. Afterward, Brother Timothy (yes, of the famed Christian Brothers Winery) approached and told her that she needed to bring "a quality tour" to the Valley. So it was no fluke that in May 1976, when Steven Spurrier came to Napa Valley to source the wines that would eventually make history, DePuy was tasked with escorting Spurrier and his wife, Bella, to the region's lesser known but respected wineries. She took the group to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Chateau Montelena, and Freemark Abbey. But her contribution to the story does not end there.

Once the wines were chosen, DePuy volunteered to oversee a group of 60 Napa Valley dignitaries on a tour of France and bring three cases of Napa Valley wines along with her. The only logistical headache was the single bottle of Freemark Abbey that broke on the airport luggage conveyor, leaking everywhere; in better news, perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this famed trip was that Tchelistcheff himself served as the lead tour guide. Imagine: the godfather of the Napa Valley wine scene chaperoning the likes of Jim Barrett, Louis P. Martini, and Andy Beckstoffer! On May 24, 1976, the group arrived at Château Lascombes, the renowned second-growth Margaux house then owned by the celebrated Alexis Lichine, for a luncheon, where DePuy found herself sitting between him and Tchelistcheff--arguably two of the greatest minds in the world of wine at the time.

Meanwhile, the competition pitting Bordeaux and Burgundy against their California counterparts was occurring at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris. As DePuy tells it, Lichine was toasting his guests with a paean to the virtues of Bordeaux while commenting on the progress U.S. winemakers were making, noting that "there was still some work to do," when the phone rang. An assistant at the winery asked where Barrett was sitting; there was a call for him. Barrett's immediate reaction was to hope his kids were all right before making his way to a tiny phone closet. And then it happened: He was told by the only journalist to attend the Judgment of Paris, George Taber of Time magazine, that he had won the white-wine category. Here he was, the guest of a famed producer who at that very moment was alluding to the American industry's inferiority--while he was being told his wine had just beaten the Burgundian competition! Trying to hide his giddiness, he walked back into the luncheon and whispered to Tchelistcheff and DePuy, "We just won!" Tchelistcheff whispered back, "Don't say a word--we are guests here."

On the ride home, DePuy recalled, "It was like taking the bus home from a high school football game. The cheering and noise: No one could stay in their seat." In the words of legendary radio host Paul Harvey, now you know the rest of the story.

Paul Kalemkiarian is the second generation owner of the Original Wine of the Month Club and host of "Wine Talks with Paul K." His current passion is to fully understand the dynamics of the Burgundy region of France.