​Wine – A Way Of Life – book review


Wine – A Way Of Life
Steven Spurrier
Published by Adelphi
ISBN 9780956238788 

‘When he was about six years old, my elder grandson asked me “Grandpa, why are you famous?” I took him to my study and showed him the book written by George M Taber about The Judgment of Paris, the Historic Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. It was the account of the tasting in Paris on 24 May 1976 that transformed the wine industry.’

And that is indeed why Steven Spurrier is famous. As a young Englishman living in Paris and running a highly successful independent wine shop and wine school (L’Académie du Vin was the first private wine school in France), he had no idea that this particular blind tasting – one of many he’d already organised – was going to rock the French wine world and change the landscape irrevocably. Spurrier invited a panel of highly regarded French palates to taste virtually unknown but hand-selected California wines, and then as a bit of an afterthought threw in some top French wines alongside. The result was incontrovertible: Californian upstarts could hold their own against the best of the French. The Americans were stunned, elated, vindicated. The French were stunned, horrified, angry. Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti apparently said, ‘ On a pris un coup de pied dans la derrière.’ French wine had indeed received a kick up the butt.

It didn’t just change the world of wine. It changed Spurrier’s life. And for the last 40-odd years he’s been known primarily as the man who orchestrated  The Judgment of Paris – the most written-about wine tasting in history. This has, ironically, been not quite a curse but, as he admits in this book, is a source of frustration. It brought him a world of opportunity, but it’s also overshadowed his other achievements, of which there are many. Add to that the Hollywood misrepresentation of the Judgment of Paris in the movie  Bottle Shock, in which Alan Rickman stars as Spurrier in a script so riddled with inaccuracies that Spurrier called it ‘deeply insulting’, it’s entirely appropriate and timely that he’s finally decided to write his memoirs and in doing so not only set the record straight but present a much more three-dimensional picture of his fantastically interesting life.

Even his birth, in 1941 in Cambridge, was unconventional. His heavily pregnant mother decided to stay on one more night at friends’ because she was so enjoying the poker game (with matches, Spurrier emphasises, not money). The driver who came to collect her to transport her to hospital for the due date was sent home without her, and the poker game ended in his arrival.

The book, a roughly chronological account of his life from 1941 to 2017, is a delightful collection of memories. From his years at Rugby school which ended in tipping a truckload of gravel on the front steps of the school to a depth which required council dig-out, through a brush with anorexia, to his student years in London where he discovered antiques, art and wine, the latter in copious amounts, Spurrier is disarmingly honest. He doesn’t hesitate to pepper his often hilarious anecdotes, all told in his distinctively dry, public-school-educated voice, with a catalogue of blunders and gaffes, from getting ‘smock-raddled’ drunk on his twenty-first birthday (he barely made it to the celebration his family had put on for him), to totalling his car in a French cemetery after a wine-lubricated lunch. He was jailed, twice, for wine-addled pranks – the first time for ‘being, whilst drunk, guilty of disorderly conduct’, said conduct involving the dismantling of a Mormon church. The second stint behind bars was for dancing on the roof of a car after a bull-fighting fiesta in Spain. The impression you get is of a slightly wild but irresistibly charming young man, grabbing life with two hands, often landing on his rear end, always in the butter. Eventually.

He is wincingly open about the way he lost the fortune he inherited from his family. The heady two decades of the sixties and seventies all began to unravel in the eighties when Spurrier moved his family back to London after losing most of his investments in Paris. He gets fired from Harrods for being cocky and the Sunday Telegraph’s Lucy Bailey writes a full-page article about it, entitled, ‘A man with too much bottle’. Far from being resentful or defensive, Spurrier documents how he managed to fritter away a huge amount of money through a series of impetuous choices, poor judgment, recklessness, naivety, bad luck and by getting into business with some pretty cynical, unscrupulous people. I suspect the many lavish parties along the way may also have dented the bank account.

On the other hand, he is also equally frank – albeit in a breezily modest, self-deprecating kind of way – about his extraordinary successes (see Jancis’s article, Steven Spurrier – champion of French wines). His bright, brave, impulsive, massively energetic and often slightly impish mind fizzes with new ideas and new ventures. Out of this came the tremendous legacies of L’Académie du Vin, Christie’s Wine Course, and Decanter World Wine Awards among others. He’s invested in, with varying success and failure, wine bars, restaurants, wine schools, storage facilities, bottling lines, wine estates in France, a wine mail-order business in India, Vinopolis in London, art, wine and antiques. His latest investment is his most personal – Bride Valley Vineyard, making sparkling wine in Dorset. He’s a tireless spirit, always onto the next thing. His daughter Kate summed it up: ‘Your problem, Dad, is that you are bored with the present.’ The good thing is that he is never bored with wine, and never bored with telling the world about wine. Spurrier is a born communicator.

His prolific writing, mostly for Decanter from the 1980s onwards, wine-tour guiding, judging, travelling, books, boards and consulting provide an exhaustive chronicle of his life for the last four decades, with not much evidence of a man slowing down in his late seventies. The roll call of names throughout the book make it a 340-page Who’s Who of the good, great and illustrious of the wine world. The wines he’s drunk, carefully catalogued in notebooks kept throughout his life, are dizzying. I would be starstruck just to have tasted one or two of the thousands he listed. Most Catherine-wheel characters light up the sky and fizzle out early. Spurrier is like a Catherine wheel plugged into perpetuity. Who else is crazy enough, aged 60 or indeed any age, to drink Saperavi for breakfast in Georgia after four days of Georgian carousing (under, I might add, the disapprovingly arched eyebrows of his fellow wine writers)?

From cover to cover, it’s a great read, but it’s not without its faults. The book is in desperate need of both a ruthless editor and a half-decent proof reader. Typos and grammatical errors litter the pages like confetti after a wedding. Many stories were repeated throughout the book – sometimes in almost identical words. The sheer number of dates and names became much harder to follow as the book see-sawed backwards and forwards in time – a perfectly viable writing technique if the main chronological storyline is kept under tight control. I often found myself flipping backwards and forwards after realising that I’d misunderstood when an event had happened. (That back-and-forth might also explain the many repetitions.) And there is simply too much here. Too many meals described, too many lists of wines, too many celebrations (no matter how magnificent), too many details about every holiday taken and every wine trip travelled and every competition judged. A good editor, I suspect, would have slashed about a third of the book. That way, the plethora of gem-like tales within the book would have had a chance to truly shine instead of becoming lost in the mass of everything else. Towards the end I found it harder and harder to keep going, as the weight of detail accumulated and dragged at my ankles.

But that aside, this is an incredibly important book, and not just because it’s about Spurrier. It’s a unique and fascinating insight into the culture and seismic changes of the British wine trade and wine in general over more than 50 years. That his indenture at Christopher’s & Co, Jermyn Street in London, started with a single question, ‘Where were you at school?’, is a snapshot of a bygone era. That he nearly didn’t get the job because he attended Rugby and not Eton (‘Oh dear, we normally only employ Etonians, but since you would have been a fag at Rugby, you will know what a trainee’s position with a company like Christopher’s will be like. You can start on Monday.’) just adds colour to the snapshot. That he had to work, with his fellow cellar rats, in absolute silence – not even allowed to test each other on wine knowledge, gives us on one hand the rigidity of tradition and social norms of the sixties. Yet on the other hand, his employer sends him on an eight-month trip to visit and work for some of the finest names in European wine – a privilege few of us can imagine today. His observations on the casual attitude to wine fraud (cross-country blending, turning dry reds into sweet whites) in the sixties, the changing attitudes towards wine, changing attitudes towards non-French wine, the discovery of new wine regions and the change in wine styles, all these weave inseparably through Spurrier’s life story, becoming a historical document with a human heart.

After reading this, I’d like nothing more than to be seated next to Steven Spurrier at dinner. I'd love to meet this quicksilver man and have a glass of wine with him. And I want to know if the vegetarian Clive Coates really did eat the fish and chips that Martin Lam offered him as a vegetarian alternative at Spurrier's 40-year celebration meal at Ransome’s Dock. Maybe Coates’ share of the 12 bottles of Pol Roger 1995, 10 bottles of Jean-Noël Gagnard, Les Cailerets Premier Cru 1999, 16 bottles of Ch Léoville-Barton 1989, nine bottles of Ch Beaucastel 1990, seven bottles of Willi Haag Brauneberger-Juffer Riesling Auslese 1985 and five bottles of Fonseca 1966 sufficiently loosened his stance on what constitutes vegetarian.