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  • Writer's picturePhilip Dunne

Why British wine expert Steven Spurrier was so important to the wine industry.

British wine expert Steven Spurrier passed away earlier this month. Why was he so important to the wine industry and what was the famous Judgement of Paris? Writer and sommelier Philip Dunne has written this appreciation

For some working in the wine industry, their introduction to Steven Spurrier was perhaps Alan Rickman’s portrayal of him in the 2008 film Bottle Shock. Rickman’s depiction of Spurrier in the Hollywood movie was that of a much older man than Spurrier was at the time. His wine shop and business in Paris; ‘Caves de la Madeleine’ was portrayed in the film as a struggling entity (in fact it wasn’t at all), and that a famous wine competition was the saving grace for Spurrier from being down on his luck in the wine industry is fiction as well. Only for the film having a “based on a true story” disclaimer, Spurrier disclosed in an interview with Somm TV in recent years that he would have sued them.

Steven Spurrier was in fact in his youthful mid-thirties and much more charming than Rickman portrayed him in the film when he set up the wine competition that today America still revels in, and France has hidden from its history books. ‘The Judgement of Paris’ which took place in 1976, was the famous wine event that pitted the best of Californian wine against the best of French wine back in the era when French wine reigned supreme on most shores.

This competition took place in a plush hotel in Paris and not in the serene country farmyard as portrayed in the Bottle Shock movie. The competition is still one of the best-known and most talked about wine judging events. All of the judges were highly respected members of French food and wine journalism. The wines, both Californian and French were tasted and rated blind without knowing each wine’s stature, history, or esteem.

As we know, Californian wines came out the victors, and the competition, and the man behind it, Steven Spurrier, were featured prominently by the one American journalist there on the day; George Taber from Time magazine. The Judgement of Paris was the one event in Steven’s life that got the Hollywood treatment by being made into a film. But in reality, it was only one small part of who he was as a man; an incredible figure through six decades in the wine industry.

Born in Cambridge, his earliest encounter with the wine which encouraged him to pursue a career in the subject, was having a trickle of Cockburn’s 1908 port when he was 13 years old. Educated at Rugby and at the London School of Economics, he got his first job in the industry in 1964, starting as a trainee with wine firm Christopher and Co. in London. While in London, he met Bella whom he married in 1968, and who survives him now alongside their two children Kate and Christian. Through the sale of a family business in his youth, Spurrier came into a large sum of money which funded his wine travels and adventures to places like Burgundy and Bordeaux, before putting in a bid for a small wine shop he came across while walking the streets of Paris.

The shop ‘Caves de la Madeleine’ was where Spurrier based himself; audaciously educating Frenchconsumers who would enter his shop on French wine and giving them tasters before they committed to buying a bottle. Following the success of his wine shop, Spurrier launched the theL’Académie du Vin, a wine education academy, in a connecting building on the same street.

In the late 1980s, Steven and Bella settled in Dorset in the south of England where they both saw the potential for wine production on the land they bought. In 2009, Spurrier laid the foundations down in planting vines, and in 2014 made his first vintage of sparkling wine, called Bride Valley. Always wanting to share his knowledge and support to the wine industry, Steven Spurrier was in his later years appointed Honorary President of WSET in 2017. Having written over 300 articles for the wine publication Decanter, Spurrier was also made the Chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards. I was fortunate to meet Steven personally in 2018 when facilitating an interview between him, and another leading wine industry inspiration from our shores who sadly passed away last year, TomasClancy.

To read more about Steven, his incredible career in wine and to get to know him as a person, I very much recommend his own book titled Wine – A Way of Life which was published in 2018. Stephensadly passed away earlier this month in Dorset, but his legacy will live on, not least in the BrideValley wines which he founded.

Philip Dunne is a wine writer and Group Sommelier Ireland, UK and the US – The Doyle Collection.You can follow him on Twitter @somm_philip

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