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A second viewing of Mondovino (Lima and Schroder, 2009) and an obituary in the New York Times (Asimov, 2021) piqued our interest in the man behind the Judgement of Paris. That famous 1976 Paris wine tasting (which has been analyzed and reviewed in this Journal1) brought sudden, surprising attention to Californian wines, and for the first time demystified the French grandes maisons and their alleged superiority. Understandably, this single event is thoroughly unpacked in the longest and most absorbing chapter of the book. From its genesis and the difficulty of finding worthy American wines in 1970s Paris for an Independence Day tasting with some pomp, through to its aftermath, Spurrier insists that Patricia Gallagher take equal credit for the event.
This historic moment has been poured over many times, so what of the life that surrounds it? Three ingredients make this character an outlier: the inheritance early in his 20s of a large fortune, a love of wine developed by tasting la crème de la crème, and a generous curiosity towards any wine worthy of the name.
Spurrier does not trouble us much with his pre-wine life. One stroke is enough to brush in the necessary family circumstances, upbringing, and expectations. There’s just a hint of charmed existence and the suggestion of gleeful discontent in his pro- gression to fine wine’s doorstep. One part money, two parts eagerness and open- mindedness, and three parts charming self-belief.
Private school connections bring Spurrier to his first gig in London’s wine mer- chant arena, at Christopher’s. Entertaining snippets of work and his London social life convey at a brisk pace what it meant to be an importer and bottler in 1960s England, to enjoy an inheritance, start a wine collection, and acquire antiques. He was sent abroad for eight months in 1965 to work as the company’s principal in four European countries. He puts his fortune to good use, working for free—an astute move that leads him to be used in ways his fellow interns simply cannot match. Chapter 2 is rich in details about how the trade operated in the 60s, how merchants “ruled the roost” and chateaux “meekly accepted” their offers via the En Primeur system.
Spurrier then launches on a Tour de France with stops at a number of prestigious stations. His tribulations inside the bordelais commercants (Cruse) are entertaining and delectable to readers with an avid interest in period details. Tax departments in France have always been interested in scrutinizing lucrative sectors and big employers, such as the wine trade in Bordeaux and elsewhere. Spurrier takes us through the tricks being carried out to maximize volumes of certain appellations, while in the background, a significant share of that volume turned out to come from another (cheaper one)! The pace is breezy and enjoyable: Cognac, Jarnac, the Loire Valley, Burgundy (Chablis then Beaunes), finishing in fine fashion with the northern Cotes du Rhone.
There are only big names on this trail, no Jura, no vin de pays, no Bandol, nothing not meant for the English market and its upper class. For many current humble wine lovers, it all appears conventional and beyond means. It may well have been that only these limited wines were available for export and of sufficient quality. Many appella- tions, obscure at the time, have improved immensely in recent decades.
A few pages of further escapades in southern Europe follow, which serve to accen- tuate the sumptuous style in which Monsieur Spurrier traveled. A beguiling combi- nation of time and money makes for a unique aesthetic. However, the return to London is difficult. The wine trade is going through a transition that will lead to the Oddbins, Bottoms Up, and the Majestic Wines, which are now up and down the United Kingdom. But the opening of Christie’s wine auctions in 1966 was a sig- nificant event. From there, Spurrier becomes a regular (and successful) bidder and gets to know Michael Broadbent from whom he learns that tasting should be a struc- tured activity. It is a seminal moment that helps Spurrier in setting up his Wine School in Paris years later.
The ballet of tastings whirls on. His new job at Murray and Banbury offers more forays into France. Manifestations of Madame X, Monsieur Y, and Owner Z are met here and there in mesmeric milieux, which Spurrier brings to life with crisp anecdotes involving prestigious wines. Back in London, “life is marvellous” Spurrier buys more antiques and a four-story house in SW10. Renovations ensue and result in space for large wine racks. Despite a few poor investments, Spurrier buys a property in France. He marries Bella and they move to Provence, intending to enter the antique trade. The building work proves too much and too costly. He is forced to sell. The car is packed and they are headed north to Paris.
La ville Lumière appears at first to offer little in the wine trade for an Englishman with passable French. Only Spurrier would surmise from this that setting up on his own is the only option. With a generous dose of good luck, he finds the Cave de la Madelaine. Chapter 5 recounts the transformation of the shop away from vins ordi- naires to much better offerings. As Spurrier writes: at that time a petrol pump atten- dant and a cavist had similar social status. Inspired by Constant Bourquin’s book, Connaissance du Vin (1970), Spurrier refreshes his stock in two innovative ways: (1) selling non-dosé champagnes (dosage consists of adding a liqueur after dégorgement to mask acidity); and (2) avoiding wines (specifically Beaujolais), which have gone through chaptalization (adding sugar to the fermenting to bolster alcohol content). Spurrier now runs a small wine shop and has settled on a barge on the Seine. His father is unimpressed—calling him a hippy.
There is virtually nothing about the mundanity of running a wine shop to distract from Spurrier’s focus on creating a shimmering litany of acquaintances, ventures, and wines. When space becomes available next to de la Madelaine, he opens the Académie du Vin. As he writes, “It seems embarrassing to say it, but in terms of wine appreci- ation, promotion and communication it was the only game in town.” Spurrier would later say that he took more pride in l’Académie than in all his other commercial ven- tures in France.
The first decade of his adventures in Paris had been a success. Following the “Judgement” in 1976, Spurrier began to travel more extensively and surf his new- found American wave of fame. The Académie and the Cave were both doing well, but hardly making a profit. His second decade in Paris started badly. Poor invest- ments caught up with him, dragging him away from his core activities. Mitterand’s nationalization of the finance industry meant that many of his customers left for Frankfurt or London. The shop’s peak had passed and would not return. Following a few years of increasing frustration, Spurrier returns to London after a hiatus of 14 years. Cue a letter from Michael Broadbent with an irresistible offer to set up and run an academy of wine in conjunction with the Christie’s Fine Arts Course. He would remain involved for decades. Spurrier became a writer in the early 1980s with significant success. The Spurrier brand soon spanned the globe. Notably, the wine worlds of Australia and New Zealand leave a favorable impression.
In the late 1980s, Spurrier moves to the countryside in Dorset and maintains his London pied-à-terre. Meanwhile, in Paris, it is time to sell his local interests. The sub- sequent chapters, of less interest, describe a retinue of engagements, consultancies, and writing, globe-trotting either as a wine judge or speaker. In Chapter 15, the 2008–2009 ambitious planting of a little over two hectares of vines from a pépinière in Burgundy on his own Dorset estate completes the circle. In 2014, at Liberty Wines’ annual trade tasting, he finds himself on the selling side of the table for the first time.
In the latter part of his life, Spurrier had become a celebrity in the English- speaking world of wine. Feature films, such as Bottle Shock in 2008 (Valletta, 2008), and documentaries exploring the Judgement of Paris, such as Somm 3 in 2018 (Stavins, 2020), brought an additional aura to his prescience in promoting lesser-known wines. “Meet Steven Spurrier: The Man who changed Wine Forever” and other YouTube clips have drawn significant audiences, perhaps surprising given how unknown the Judgement of Paris is to many of today’s wine drinkers. For others, such as Robert Mondavi, Spurrier put California on the map. But his appeal to French-speaking audiences appears thin: YouTube has only the odd, old interview with him elaborating in French, and Le Monde did not offer an obituary.
To your reviewers—both British university faculty of relatively comfortable means —Spurrier’s grandiose vertical tastings of illustrious Champagnes or Clarets seem affected, somewhat vacuous, and the preserve of the few. But Spurrier was also a champion of lesser-known appellations and vin de pays, as his Guide des Vins Régionaux de France (Spurrier, 1985) attests.
Wine leaves its mark and lays down its challenges early on in Monsieur Spurrier’s life with a simple, bold appearance that evokes a first love. From that moment on, we are bounced along in his wine-glass elevator, skipping through a dizzying array of events, touching down on endless, highly prized invitations to dinners, engagements, tastings, or competitions. Regrettably, for a reader not part of the trade, at times it feels like a tiresome exhibition of name-dropping, and thereby loses some of its vitality.
This was clearly a heavily documented life, and the details are lifted with metic- ulous care: “We were to have Dom Perigon as an aperitif, probably the 1955, then Chassagne-Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 1962 bottled by Brouhin, and com- pare Domaine Rousseau’s Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambertin Clos de Beze from 1952. The order was left to me and I suggested that the Lafite should be the first of the reds and that it should not be decanted, but poured directly into the glasses after opening” (p. 96). Despite these otherworldly nuggets of haute gas- tronomie, Spurrier retains a sense of his huge good fortune through recurrent touches of self-deprecation.
With products, places, and especially people front and center, recurring names weave a rich mise-en-scène that, in one way or another, is responsible for many of the plays of his life. He is unstintingly generous in crediting others and self-effacing to the point that you could believe it all happened by itself.
Ashton, R. H. (2012). Improving experts’ wine quality judgments: Two heads are better than one. Journal of Wine Economics, 6(2), 160–178.
Asimov, E. (2021). Steven Spurrier, 79, a merchant who upended the wine world with a taste test. New York Times, March 18, Section A, page 23.
Bourquin, C. (1970). Connaissance du Vin. Paris: Gérard.
Cicchetti, D. V. (2006). The Paris 1976 wine tastings revisited once more: Comparing ratings of consistent
and inconsistent tasters. Journal of Wine Economics, 1(2), 125–140.
Gergaud, O., Ginsburgh, V., and Moreno-Ternero, J. D. (2021). Wine ratings: Seeking a consensus among
tasters via normalization, approval, and aggregation. Journal of Wine Economics, 16(3), 321–342. Lima, T., and Schroder, N. (2009). Film review: Jonathan Nossiter (Director), Mondovino. Journal of Wine
Economics, 4(1), 119–121.
Spurrier, S. (1985). Guide des Vins Régionaux de France. Paris: Dursus.
Stavins, R. N. (2020). Film review: Jason Wise (Director), Somm 3. Journal of Wine Economics, 15(4),
Valletta, R. (2008). Film review: Randall Miller (Director), Bottle Shock. Journal of Wine Economics, 3(2),
New York University
19 W. 4th Street, 6FL
New York, NY 10012, U.S.A.
Tel: (212) 992-8083
Fax: (212) 995-4186