I was sad to hear that Steven Spurrier passed today at the age of 79, after a struggle with cancer. He was one of those figures in the wine world who was universally liked. He was also one of those rare people whose career maintained itself at a stratospheric height right until the end. He was a true wine celebrity.
His story is widely known, and well told in his autobiography. Spurrier’s big break was a bit of an accident: a tasting in Paris pitting old world classics against Californian counterparts in a blind tasting. The Judgement of Paris has become legendary in the world of wine for its powerful narrative – new world upstarts challenge the established order and win. This tasting and the endless discussions and replications that have followed have helped open up the world of fine wine. There was even a Hollywood movie made about it, with Alan Rickman playing Spurrier. It wasn’t the best film, but who else in the wine trade can say that they have been played by a world-famous actor in a mainstream film?
Spurrier was a genuinely nice man, who from the sound of things was charming to everyone he met. He was much nicer than he needed to be. Often people with his sort of fame can get away with behaving badly and no one calls them for it. As drinks writer Henry Jeffreys put it: he always left his ego at the door. I really warmed to him when I had occasion to meet him.
He was also full of energy, and wanted to keep discovering. The last time I tasted with him was in Canada in October 2019 for the final Judgment of BC tasting (he’s pictured judging there in the top picture). He’d spent quite a bit of time over the years getting to know the Canadian wine scene, and I know the Canadians appreciated his interest.
I also loved his response, when I asked him some questions for a Noble Rot article about the UK governments safe-drinking guidelines, back in 2016.
‘The government’s guidelines are plain stupid,’ he said. ‘The “Nanny State” combined with scare stories,’
‘They have forgotten that Pasteur described wine as “le plus hygenique des boissons”. Is there anyone in this scare story who could even touch the hem of Pasteur’s garment?’
Spurrier continued. ‘I’ve been drinking alcohol since my late ‘teens, pretty much cut out spirits in my mid 20s, but I certainly drink more than a bottle of wine a day and the last time I went on the wagon was a week in Morocco for a bet about 12 years ago. Let’s say 50+ units a week, every week for 57 years. Or certainly 400 bottles of wine a year for 50 years. And, as you say, I am fit and healthy and although I can no longer button up the suit jackets I had made for me a couple of decades ago and the waistbands of all the trousers have had to be let out, I am not overweight, despite all the sugar in alcohol.’
‘I suppose all the government wants is that we eat rice and drink water and walk 5 miles a day and then we will never cost the NHS a penny, but what a life!! It’s 12.30, past time for a glass of Sherry!’
The wine world will be toasting to him tonight.