Steven Spurrier blew up the world of wine with the Judgment of Paris. His legacy lives on.

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Talking to Steven Spurrier was like having known him all his life. He was generous with his friendship, his wisdom of wine and art, his joie de vivre. Wine is a generous drink and wine lovers tend to be generous people. Spurrier was the generosity of wine personified.

Spurrier died on March 9 at his home in Dorset, England, aged 79. His life has been recounted in several tributes since, so I won’t repeat it here. His main fame dates back to the mid-1970s, when he owned a small wine shop in Paris, the Cave de la Madeleine, and the first private wine school in France, the Académie du Vin. To commemorate the American bicentenary, he organized a tasting of the best Californian wines and invited some of the Parisian wine elite to blind mark them – with concealed labels – with some of the best wines from France. When California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Burgundy and Bordeaux, the old hierarchy of the wine world was broken. Winemakers around the world realized that with enough investment and hard work, they could make wines to rival the best in Europe. The tasting became known as the Judgment of Paris and was portrayed in the 2008 film “Bottle Shock,” in which the jovial Spurrier was played by a dour Alan Rickman. Spurrier described the highly fictionalized film as “more bull—–than bottle-crash”.

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Nicolás Catena, spearhead of the rebirth of Argentine wine, was inspired by Parisian tasting. Chastened by the results of the tasting, French wineries in Bordeaux and Burgundy improved the quality of their own vineyards and began investing in California, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere. Any new wine region seeking recognition is inspired by the Parisian tasting of 1976. This is Spurrier’s legacy. Today’s oenophiles who delight in a pinot noir from Patagonia, a chardonnay from Tasmania, a riesling from Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula, or even the now-in-vogue traditional qvevri wines from Georgia, should raise a drink and a toast to Spurrier. We live in a wine world that he largely contributed to create.

“We were trying to bring wine back from the nadir of prohibition and elevate it to national consciousness,” says Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in California’s Napa Valley and producer of the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon that dominated the red wines in Paris. . “That tasting was the affirmation that it could be done. The official hierarchy didn’t have the ability to stop people from doing beauty wherever they were,” he told me.

Spurrier went on to open wine schools in London, Canada and Japan, and for nearly three decades wrote a monthly column for Decanter, Britain’s leading wine magazine. In 2008, he and his wife, Bella, planted pinot noir and chardonnay vines at their farm in Dorset, near the English Channel, on the same geological chalk ridge as Champagne. Their Bride Valley label joins the nascent rise of English sparkling wine. In recent years he has become a publisher, founding the Wine Academy Library to house influential wine books in print as well as new works.

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France was Spurrier’s first love of wine, and his palate turned to Italy later in life. But it has never ceased to put down roots in underprivileged regions. I first met him in 2013 when he came to Richmond to host the Virginia Wine Summit. He became an advocate for Virginia wine, returning every year to judge the final round of the Governor’s Cup contest. In 2019, when the judgment was held in Washington, my wife and I invited him to our house for dinner. He had never seen a smart speaker before and kept coming into our kitchen to yell, “Alexa! What weather is it ? He cackled with joy when he answered. It was his childlike curiosity, his boundless fascination with everything new.

Our paths crossed several times that year, including the International Pinot Noir Conference in Oregon and a Napa ceremony where the Smithsonian honored Winiarski. We journeyed together through the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, a region producing exceptional wines and ready for its moment on the world stage. Wherever he went, Spurrier was treated like a rock star, but he always had time and a smile for friends old and new. His generosity and lack of pretension were always evident.

“For all he’s done in wine, I especially admired Steven for his gentleness, his kindness,” says Paul Draper, who made the 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Cabernet that placed fifth in Paris but first during a re-enactment 10 years later.

Last year, Spurrier’s Wine Academy Library published his memoir, “A Life in Wine.” The cover photo shows a young Spurrier in the Cave de la Madeleine, surrounded by cases and bottles of France’s finest wines, a carefree Englishman inviting us to enjoy the sweet life. As I turn the pages, I hear his voice telling anecdotes not just about his life, but about wine and life more broadly. It’s not just a memoir, but a conversation. And in this conversation, we become friends again.

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About Michael Brafford

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