Steven Spurrier obituary: Connoisseur who upended the wine world

Spurrier hosted the Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting of Californian and French wines

British wine expert Steven Spurrier (right), pictured in 1975, died on March 9th at his home in Dorset, England, aged 79. Photograph: Watford/Mirrorpix via Getty

British wine expert Steven Spurrier (right), pictured in 1975, died on March 9th at his home in Dorset, England, aged 79. Photograph: Watford/Mirrorpix via Getty

 

Steven Spurrier
Born: October 5th, 1941
Died: March 9th, 2021

The world was paying little attention on May 24th, 1976, when a small wine tasting was held in Paris at the Intercontinental Hotel. But the echoes of that tasting, later called the Judgment of Paris, have resounded for decades. The instigator, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop and wine school in Paris, had set up a blind tasting of 20 wines – 10 white and 10 red – for nine French judges, including some of the top names in the French wine and food establishment.

Of the white wines, all made from the Chardonnay grape, six were from California, four from Burgundy. The reds, all made largely or entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon, included six from California and four from Bordeaux.

‘Ah, back to France,’ one judge sighed after tasting a Napa Valley Chardonnay. Another, sniffing a Bâtard-Montrachet, declared: ‘This is definitely California. It has no nose’

It was hardly thought to be a fair fight. As has been recounted countless times, the judges were thoroughly convinced that California wines were inferior. “Ah, back to France,” one judge sighed after tasting a Napa Valley Chardonnay. Another, sniffing a Bâtard-Montrachet, declared: “This is definitely California. It has no nose.”

When all was done, a shocking consensus revealed the favourite wines to be a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Cellars, both in Napa Valley. The Americans celebrated, the French shrank in consternation, and everlasting fame awaited Spurrier, who went on to have a long career as a wine entrepreneur.

Spurrier died on March 9th at his home in the English village of Litton Cheney, Dorset. He was 79. The cause was cancer, said Simon McMurtrie, chairman and publisher of the Académie du Vin Library, a wine imprint founded by Spurrier.

The Paris tasting might have swiftly been forgotten had not a single reporter, George M Taber of Time magazine, been on hand to witness the events. His article Judgment of Paris gave the California wine industry a much-needed boost, lending its vintners international credibility at a time when they were searching for critical approval and public acceptance. Marketers used the tasting to sell California wines all over the world.

A 2008 film Bottle Shock, with Alan Rickman playing Steven Spurrier, depicted the Paris tasting as the climax of a triumph-of-the-underdog story

“It rocketed us to fame,” said Bo Barrett, whose father, Jim Barrett, was the proprietor of Chateau Montelena. Warren Winiarski, the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, said in 1983: “The phone started to ring pretty quickly. The wines really took off.” For years afterwards, wine professionals – occasionally joined by Spurrier – and amateur enthusiasts re-enacted the tasting.

Taber, the reporter, in 2005 published a book, Judgment of Paris: California vs France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionised Wine. A 2008 film Bottle Shock, with Alan Rickman playing Spurrier, depicted the tasting as the climax of a triumph-of-the-underdog story.

Most recently, Jason Wise, the director of the Somm series, a trilogy of documentaries available on Amazon Prime Video about sommeliers, made a documentary about the 1976 tasting, The Judgment of Paris, which is to be released this summer.

As for Spurrier, he leveraged the tasting into different careers in wine, with both triumphs and failures. With the shop Caves de la Madeleine and the school L’Académie du Vin as a base, he built a successful mini-empire in and around Paris. By 1980 he had opened two wine bars, Bistrot à Vin and the Blue Fox, as well as a restaurant, Moulin du Village.

Alan Rickman played Spurrier in the 2008 film Bottle Shock. Photograph: 20th Century Fox
Alan Rickman played Spurrier in the 2008 film Bottle Shock. Photograph: 20th Century Fox

Other schemes did not work out. A plan for a wholesale wine storage cellar was an expensive mistake, and while efforts to open distant outposts of L’Académie du Vins succeeded at first, they did not end well. In France, tax problems ensued. As Spurrier put it in Steven Spurrier: Wine – A Way of Life, a memoir published in 2018, “The Spurrier House of Cards was to collapse in 1988.”

Moving back to London in 1990 with his wife, Bella, and their two children, Spurrier sought to revive his career. He was an indefatigable traveller, giving talks on wine, and advised airlines on what to serve passengers. He wrote a series of educational wine books and, in 1993, began a long association with Decanter, a British consumer magazine, writing columns and leading tastings.

Steven Spurrier was born on October 5th, 1941, to John and Pamela Spurrier in Cambridge, England. His father, a tank officer during the second World War, joined his family’s sand-and-gravel business in Derbyshire afterwards, which boomed with postwar construction.

Steven attended Rugby, a boarding school, and the London School of Economics. He was an indifferent student, more interested in pursuing art, jazz and wine. His early impression of wine was formed as a 13 year old, when his grandfather offered him a taste of port at a family Christmas Eve dinner – Cockburn’s 1908, Spurrier recalled. “There was never any doubt in my mind that I would make wine my career,” he wrote.

He landed his first job in 1964 at Christopher’s, a leading London wine firm. That year, at a Bayswater skating rink, he met Bella Lawson, whom he married in 1968. She survives him, as do their children, Christian and Kate, and four grandchildren.

Spurrier: ‘There was never any doubt in my mind that I would make wine my career.’ Photograph: Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty
Spurrier: ‘There was never any doubt in my mind that I would make wine my career.’ Photograph: Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty

The family gravel business was sold in 1964, and the substantial cheque Spurrier received for his shares – the equivalent of roughly €6 million today – was to finance adventures and business opportunities for years. As part of his wine education, Spurrier was sent on trips to what were then considered the great wine regions – mostly French, but also the Rhine, the Sherry region of Spain and Portugal’s port lodges. With his new wealth accruing to him at a time of perilously high British tax rates, the Spurriers decided to decamp for Provence in 1968 and then to Paris in 1970. There, expecting their first child, they found an apartment on Rue des Martyrs, in the fashionable ninth arrondissement, on the right bank.

While walking the streets one day, Spurrier passed a small wine shop, Caves de la Madeleine, in the Cité Berryer, an 18th-century shopping arcade. He soon purchased the shop and set about making it his own. It might have seemed rash for an Englishman to presume to sell wine to the French, but Spurrier made a go of it. Soon, with two partners, Jon Winroth, a wine writer for the International Herald Tribune, and Patricia Gallagher, a wine-loving American expat, he opened L’Académie du Vin in an adjoining building.

Whether selling wine or simply drinking it, Spurrier was a debonair figure, hair perfectly coifed, a handkerchief peeking out just so from his jacket pocket

“There is a myth about Frenchmen, that they know all about wine simply because they grew up drinking it,” Spurrier told the New York Times in 1977. “In fact, most Frenchmen don’t know anything about wine. They don’t really care. They care about food. They can talk for hours about the nuance of a sauce, but wine is really just something to clear the palate for the next food taste. So we’re trying to change that a bit.”

Whether selling wine or simply drinking it, Spurrier was a debonair figure, hair perfectly coifed, a handkerchief peeking out just so from his jacket pocket. In his later years he became an elder statesman to wine writers.

He had one last adventure in wine to come. In 1987 the Spurriers bought a farm in Dorset, near the south coast of England, and he decided that the chalk soil, similar to what can be found in Champagne and Chablis, was a perfect place for vines.

They did not start planting until 2009, by which time a burgeoning sparkling-wine industry had taken root in southern England. Their sparkling wine, Bride Valley, had its first release in 2014.

While wine had been Spurrier’s professional life, art was his passion. He built a sculpture garden in Dorset and filled his home with his favourite pieces. “Wine is a way of life, but art is the real thing,” he said in an interview with Club Oenologique, an online wine magazine. “Art means more to me emotionally than wine – there’s no contest.” – New York Times

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.