Steven Spurrier (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Steven Spurrier: A class act of the wine world

Steven Spurrier, a British wine expert and a fixture at all London tastings, died this week at the age of 79

Artillery Row

The wine world lost one of its giants this week in Steven Spurrier. He’s one of the very few people who managed to put the subject on the front pages of the world’s newspapers when he organised the so-called Judgement of Paris competition in 1976.

He was the same with everyone, unfailingly charming and always with something interesting to say

This was a blind tasting judged by the great and good of the French wine world pitting the might of Bordeaux and Burgundy, against California, a place whose wines most Europeans had never even tasted. Surely France could not lose. But thrillingly, and deliciously, it did, with Californian wines coming top in both the white and red categories. It inspired a book and a feature film Bottle Shock starring Alan Rickman as Spurrier. In fact, the media, particularly over here and in the US, has never lost interest. Perhaps because who doesn’t like to see both wine snobs and the French taken down a peg or two?

More significantly, it marked the arrival of American and later Australian, Chilean and other New World wines. Fittingly, I first met Spurrier at a round table tasting for an upmarket Chilean wine. These tastings could be nerve-wracking affairs for new writers. They still fill me with anxiety. I never know what to say as the big beasts of the wine world opine. Sometimes, the cellar rooms where such tastings are often held seem much too small for all those jostling egos.

I was sat next to Spurrier and, much to my surprise, he asked me my opinion on the wines, something I don’t think any other writer had done up to that point. He then engaged with what I said, and said something like, “yes, I think you’ve got it there.” Or words to that effect. It’s quite hard to express how startling this experience was to someone outside the wine world. It’s like Martin Scorsese asking your opinion on film making.

When he spoke, it wasn’t an excuse to show off his knowledge or tasting prowess

He was the same with everyone, unfailingly charming and always with something interesting to say about the wine in question. When he spoke, it wasn’t an excuse to show off his knowledge or tasting prowess. He didn’t need to. He seemed to be at every tasting in London, always in an immaculate suit looking like it had been tailored in 1984. Perhaps because of his affluent background – he inherited a £250,000 (something like £5 million in today’s money) in his 20s – or perhaps because he had done so much in his career, he had no need to posture, to own the room or to pronounce. He just exuded class.

A couple of years ago, he released his long-awaited autobiography, A Life in Wine. His publisher sent me a copy. It was an interesting book marred by atrocious editing and I was a bit cheeky when I reviewed it for The Spectator, pointing out all the mistakes. A few days later I had an email from Spurrier pointing out all the mistakes in my review. I felt very small and ashamed, especially as he had always been so kind to me. We exchanged a few emails and he suggested we have lunch together to show there was no hard feeling. As I said, total class.

We met at a wine bar, Noble Rot on Lamb’s Conduit Street. The staff couldn’t quite contain their excitement that Spurrier was in the room. Our waiter kept on sending over glasses of wine for him to try. It was an insight into his charmed life. I paid, feeling it was the least I could do and we parted on good terms. From then on, he’d email me occasionally with information about books from Academie du Vin Library, the publisher he was involved with. When I wrote about them, I always triple-checked my facts.

The last time I saw him, was before lockdown last year, fittingly on St. James’s Street by Berry Bros. & Rudd hurrying, I am sure, to another tasting. As always, he looked fit and dapper in one of his amazing suits. He was such a fixture, that it’s hard to imagine the wine world without him. Here’s to you, Steven. I’ll be opening something suitably classy to toast your memory this weekend. And again, apologies for being smart arse.

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