Steven Spurrier: A Life in Wine

Paying tribute to a man who almost singlehandedly changed the direction of California wine in the 1970s.

By Bob McGinn March 17, 2021

Steven Spurrier.

The wine world is mourning the passing of Steven Spurrier (1941-2021). Although little known by the general public, anyone serious about wine knows his name.

Born of wealth, he remained humble and spent his life with the goals of enjoying wine and art and promoting them to others. To that end, he became a major contributor to Decanter, the preeminent British wine publication. Noted wine writer and friend Jancis Robinson describes Spurrier’s beginnings as buying a wine shop in Paris called Cave de la Madeleine and forming the L’Académie du Vin wine school next door. This gave him the opportunity to educate Parisians and British ex-pats on lesser-known wines found throughout France, a desire that eventually led him to the event for which he is most noted: the famous "Judgment of Paris" tasting event held in 1976.

The wine world is full of luminaries, some recognized nationally, such as Robert Mondavi, and many more recognized mostly by wine lovers. A few have been the subject of books, fewer still the subject of a movie. But only one man, Spurrier, not only achieved these, in books (his own memoir, A Life in Wine, as well as in George M. Taber's Judgment of Paris) and a movie (Bottle Shock), but almost singlehandedly changed the perception and direction of California wine.

In 1976, through his L’Académie du Vin, Spurrier decided to hold a tasting of California wines. He had visited the state many times and felt the quality of wine there was as good as any produced in France.

Initially, the event was to be a tasting of just California wines, but at the last minute, he added French counterparts, and the blind tasting was judged by top French experts. When California wines bested their French equivalents, the results were uplifting to the United States and devastating to the French. Spurrier was as surprised as most with the results. Stag's Leap Wine Cellars dominated in cabernet sauvignon and Chateau Montelena governed in Chardonnay.

The results were so dynamic and provoking, it was like the “shot heard round the world” in the American revolution. Only one journalist attended the tasting, but his story in The New York Times circulated throughout the world and gave Spurrier sudden fame. (Ironically, the basis for the tasting was the bicentennial of American independence.)

The tasting benefited California and international winemakers by helping create a level playing field among the wine intelligentsia and a new sense of equality. While California producers had emulated French wines for many years, it was groundbreaking that they were now seen as equal and even superior.

This was never Spurrier’s ambition. A humble man with a nice pedigree, substantial assets and boundless curiosity, he could be just as happy pulling corks as receiving awards. Hopefully, what we can learn from Spurrier’s life and teachings is to remind us that good wine is good wine regardless of its source. Enjoyment is not proportional to expense. Wines can cost a few dollars, hundreds or thousands, but each can offer the same degree of pleasure.

Bob McGinn has spent his entire career in the wine industry—forming wine clubs, working in wine sales marketing and engaging in all facets of the winemaking process, including vine management, fermentation and yeast analysis. He has developed wine programs for companies such as Marriott, Sheraton and Smith & Wollensky, and consults with local restaurants. You can read more of McGinn’s work at gulfcoastwinejournal.com.

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