On Thursday morning listeners to the BBC’s landmark morning news programme Today were told that France’s top wine producers might be “rather miffed” by the results of the major taste-off of mature California Cabernets versus mature first growth red bordeaux in which California unexpectedly swept the board. “Miffed”? Pure Spurrier.
In many ways the man who organised Wednesday’s re-run of the famous California v France tasting in London, and the original in Paris in 1976, is more interesting than the taste-offs themselves - and ironically he could hardly be more pro-French wine.
Perhaps every area of activity has its puzzlingly under-celebrated pioneer and Steven Spurrier is certainly the unsung hero of wine. He has quite exceptional wine knowledge, particularly but not exclusively of France, has fingers in vinous pies in six countries, and has had all manner of brilliant wine ideas which other people, never him, have managed to spin into gold.
Fortunately he began life with a fortune, was wise enough to marry another, and seems to be happy enough to have spent his 42 years in the wine business gently frittering them away in various agreeable wine-related pursuits. Not that he is indolent. Far from it. At the Christie’s Wine Course which he set up in 1982, it is more often that not Spurrier who carries the boxes and opens the bottles. His prolific wine writing output includes three very solid books, of which only Clarke and Spurrier’s Fine Wine Guide is still in print.
When a group of us British wine writers need to fix up our programme of visits to taste the Bordeaux primeurs each spring, it is Steven who does all the hard work of writing to the châteaux and co-ordinating our split-second timetable. But when Steven counselled me to invest in Vinopolis, the wine-based tourist attraction that opened just south of the Thames in 1999, assuring me that he was putting everything he could into it, I made a note to do the opposite and have not regretted it.
But to call him the man with the tin touch would be deeply unfair because he has enriched the wine world considerably, and played a key part in the wine education of such luminaries as France’s top wine writer Michel Bettane, Tim Johnston and Mark Williamson of Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris, Britain’s most fastidious wine importer Roy Richards of Richards Walford, Charles Lea of Lea & Sandeman fine wine shops around London, Paul Bowker (who was so cute he was known as ‘le petit’ange’ by Caves de la Madeleine customers and went on to run Christie’s wine department) and Jenny Dobson whom Spurrier met when she was an au pair for the Seysses family at Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac and, touchpaper lit by Spurrier, has gone on to make great wine at Ch Sénéjac in Bordeaux and Te Awa in New Zealand. If he has a fault, it is hardly the most serious: an excess of enthusiasm about the most humdrum of wines.
Born into a Derbyshire family twice blessed financially, by a Leyland Motors fortune and another nice deal involving a gravel pit and the M1, our unsung hero began his wine career in the mid 1960s, post LSE, in what was then charmingly known as ‘the carriage trade’ at Christopher’s in St James’s. The nip-waisted pinstriped suits and broad pink ties that he still wears surely date from this period of Mr Fish and Jean Shrimpton. He looks a remarkably youthful 64.
By 1970, hooked on fine wine after an extended grand tour of important cellars, and dining rooms whose doors were opened thanks to his good connections, he moved to Paris and persuaded an elderly lady to sell him her tiny wine shop in a passageway off the Rue Royale. Being run by an Englishman, Caves de la Madeleine became increasingly famous and specialised in hand-picked bottles from only the finest growers. Spurrier soon took over the premises next door to give wine classes in English at L’Académie du Vin, a great name and then novel concept that he could have franchised very profitably. Instead, in a rare flash of entrepreneurialism, he set up a comparative tasting of France’s greatest wines with some new pretenders from elsewhere, inviting some of France’s most celebrated palates to judge them blind. They promptly, much to everyone’s surprise, preferred California to France. The aim of the event – Spurrier claims he chose France’s best because he intended them to shine - was to generate publicity for L’Académie but, typically, the rather amateurishly operated publicity machine was hijacked, in this case by California wine in general.
It is characteristic that Spurrier’s light-hearted idea that it would simply be amusing to recreate the event 30 years later simultaneously in the UK and California plunged him into prolonged, agonising negotiations and internecine strife. His plans were apparently thwarted at every turn by several notable Bordelais anxious about their reputations. (It may have to be me who organises the primeurs tastings next year.) And Spurrier confidently expected the French to win second time round...
In 1982, after disastrously diversifying into wine warehousing, a wine bar (since copied), and a restaurant, Spurrier and family returned to London from where he has been variously educating, writing, judging (he is the chairman of both the Japan Wine Challenge and the Decanter World Wine Awards about which I wrote recently) and choosing wine. His wine academy concept continues without his direct involvement but with three highly successful branches in Japan and in the form of a similar operation by the Spanish Steps in Rome. He has chosen wine for Singapore Airlines since 1989 and is one of the more diligent tasters on the circuit I frequent. His stammer seems only to add to the charm of his many orations, whether it be an eloge (in Churchillian French) to a French wine producer or in his capacity as President of the Circle of Wine Writers.
There is a certain irony in how one of the American protégés he taught the three Bs – Bordeaux, Burgundy and balance – earned his fame. Charles F. Shaw was at the Chemical Bank in Paris in the mid 1970s when, thanks to Steven, he fell in love with wine, particularly Beaujolais, gave up his job and moved to the Napa Valley to plant the Beaujolais vine Gamay and persuade Californians to love it. He lost that battle, and several others, but his name, sold to the Bronco Wine Company, lives on in the form of Two Buck Chuck, the brand that has famously managed to make buying a $1.99 bottle in Trader Joe’s seem smart.
But as Spurrier himself admits ruefully, “Perhaps as numerous as the protégés who have stayed in the trade, are those who I warned off it. I received many letters from those wonderful gap year students who came via the British Embassy saying ‘I have been offered a job
with Cazenove/Morgan Grenfell/Linklaters, but really would like to go into the wine trade....can you help?’ Yes, take the job.”