There are few people in the wine trade who have had such a pivotal role in changing the reputation of Californian wines as Steven Spurrier. Famed for organising the Judgement of Paris in 1976, Spurrier has been an opinion leader in the industry for over 50 years. Amanda Barnes interviews him at 67 Pall Mall in London to discuss the highlights of his career, and his wine cellar.
The title of your memoirs is Wine – a way of life. Was there ever a moment in your life when wine was not your destiny? Were you interested in any other profession, or were you into wine from a very young age?
Wine was what I wanted to do when I got around to trying to find a job. My next choice would have been art, so I was within maybe two days of joining Christie’s and that would have been another way of life. As it was, I got an interview at Christopher’s in Jones Street, the oldest wine merchant in London, and they took me on. It was always what I wanted to do it and it has been a way of life.
Your life has been documented in many articles and films – sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly – and this is the first time that you’ve written your memoirs. What’s the most pivotal moment in your career in wine?
Well, the most pivotal moment is of course the Judgment of Paris, which doesn’t go away. I’m much more proud of having founded l’Académie du Vin – creating the first private wine school in France. I think it is a pivotal moment because if there’d been no Académie, there would have been no Judgment of Paris.
The judgment of Paris was pivotal not just for your career but also for New World wine, especially Californian. Do you think there could ever be a tasting with quite the same impact today? Or has the wine world changed too much?
I think it was well described in George Taber’s book as the tasting which would revolutionise the world of wine. It was the first chink in the armour of France and it created a template whereby unknown wines of quality could go up in a blind tasting against known wines of quality. And if the tasters were of quality, their views would be respected, and no one had thought of that before. There [were] a lot of little tastings comparing this, that and the other, but no one had done it publicly in Paris – French wines against California wines and it opened the gates.
So you have Eduardo Chadwick, who had this tasting in Berlin in 2004 and his wines came first, second and equal fourth, and that became known as the Berlin Tasting and since then that template has been taken on. And so that’s it, simple. Of course, it was vitally important for California, and as Aubert de Villaine of Romanée-Conti, who was one of the judges, said it was a much-needed kick in the pants for – he didn’t say pants, he used a rather more vulgar word – for French wine. It was a win-win situation.
Your career has really been forged with the reputation of Bordeaux. Do you think Bordeaux will continue to stay as the most prestigious region or do you think it’s already kind of losing its throne? And which regions do you think might reach the same fame or reputation as Bordeaux, now or in the future?
If I’m talking about France, I think all the focus is now on Burgundy. The focus hasn’t gone off Bordeaux, but Bordeaux is a brand so to speak, and it has Châteaux and when people think Burgundy, they think of individual domains. They think of people in Burgundy, they think of brands in Bordeaux. Burgundy has never been making better wine and it’s on a complete roll, but it is also becoming very expensive. I would think the Rhône Valley, both north and south, is the hotspot. And then of course right across the Midi, and then you have Spain and Italy.
The world of wine is incredible because everyone is looking to make the best wine they can, even the best wine at five dollars. And you see the passion that is going into it now. In the early 70s, France was resting on its laurels. There wasn’t much money being made. There were passionate people but now, it’s passion because it’s cultural, it’s artistic and it’s real earth. It’s a mix of everything.
I want to know about your private cellar, do you have any naughty secrets in there? Are there any wines that you love to drink that would surprise people?
I have a naughty secret that probably 50% of my private cellar is New World wine and it represents about 1% of my drinking! Because when I go home to Dorset of the weekend, I don’t tend to drink New World wine. If, however, I have friends staying, then I do. I’m very European and I’m drinking more and more Italian wine.
Any region in particular?
Tuscany. I don’t understand Piedmontese wine. Alright, I don’t understand enough of them to pay the price that they’re asking for them.
You’re also an editor at Decanter and have been very important in wine communication. I’d love to know your thoughts on the future of wine communication…
I think wine communication will get bigger, better, broader, deeper… Whether the wine magazines will survive in their current state, I don’t know, because everything seems to be going over to the web, going digital. But communication is everything, absolutely everything. Something which is not communicated about in our world does not exist.
How do you see wine education changing and the growth of wine students? Do you think it’s an exciting time?
I think it’s very exciting. The WSET for which I have the honour of being the honorary president has 90,000 students across the world. That’s 90,000 people who want to learn about wine and probably 50% of them want to go into the wine trade. I’ve been very happy, I’ve re-registered the name Académie du Vin and at 67 Pall Mall, where we are now, we will be redoing the Christie’s Wine Course, which I founded. Christie’s shut it down a year ago. The Christie’s Wine Course will have a renaissance under the name Académie du here at 67 Pall Mall. I’m really happy about that.
In terms of wine communication, we’ve seen the era of super critics. What are your thoughts on critics of wine versus influencers or journalists of wine, and how do you see that changing?
Well, let’s say the dominance of Robert Parker is no longer a factor. The Wine Advocate is still very strong but it’s no longer a factor. In this country, Jancis Robinson is by far and away the most important critic.
I view critics rather like movie critics. There are so many movies coming out and you buy a newspaper and you take the advice. I view criticism as reviewing, like book reviewing, movie reviewing, art reviewing or wine reviewing. What people do, if they’re intelligent, they have reviewers, journalists and critics who they trust. When people used to ask me how they should I buy wine, I said, ‘find a wine merchant you can trust’.
And your latest career change within wine industry has been as a vintner, making sparkling wine in England. How’s that changed your perception of the industry, or has it?
It’s convinced me of the adage that to make a small fortune in the wine business, you need to start with a large fortune. We are well over budget and well under production but I’m fascinated by it. We need a good crop this year, but I’m very pleased I’ve done it.
I was interviewed by Patrick Schmitt of The Drinks Business last year and he said, ‘Steven how’s it going?’ This was in July, I said, ‘Well, Patrick I’m angry with the small production but I’m not worried.’ If we get another tiny crop this year, I’ll be both angry and worried. So let’s say, I’m still angry and I’m beginning to get worried, but I think I shall be less worried if we have a good crop in 2018.
Perhaps you’ve already answered this question, but I’d like to know what’s your proudest moment in your career…
I think being awarded the Decanter Man of the Year last year. That really was an accolade, and the people who came to the lunch at La Gavroche – Piero Antinori, Aubert de Villaine, Angelo Gaya and Eduardo Chadwick – people I’ve known all my life and people who, I mean I wouldn’t say admired me, but I mean that it was a wonderful accolade. So that is my proudest moment and I don’t think that’s going to happen again!
Do you have any regrets?
I made a lot of really stupid mistakes. In the final years in Paris I made a lot of them, and I made a great mistake in New York. I have a great fault of being a prima donna. It’s not that I always think I’m the centre of attention, and I don’t wish to be, but I always do what I think is going to work. And that doesn’t always work, so I made a lot of catastrophic mistakes and of course you have to live with them.
Everyone can read very much about your life in your memoirs, but what’s the next chapter for Steven Spurrier?
Well, the next chapter is that I’m going to be relaxing. I decided that I’m going to be an observer. I’ve been a participant in the wine world for 54 years, I’m now going to be an observing participant. Therefore, I’ll step back a bit and still enjoy it, and I won’t be on the side-lines. I’m not the kind of person to be on the side-lines, but I won’t be in the middle of it.
Interview by Amanda Barnes
Edited by Robert Smyth
Watch the video interview online: