Steven Spurrier, the British wine expert, writer, educator, merchant and even vintner who was famous for having staged the 1976 Judgment of Paris, died at his home in Dorset, England, just after midnight this morning. He was 79.
Perpetually traveling, speaking and educating about wine, Spurrier was a beloved figure to many in the wine trade. He also sparked the passion of many wine novices with his undying enthusiasm and boundless curiosity.
“It is impossible to overstate Steven’s influence in the wine world,” Bartholomew Broadbent, a longtime friend and colleague, told Wine Spectator. “He was way before his time and so many projects didn’t get off the ground because of this. He was a champion for up-and-coming wine regions, starting in 1976 with the Judgment of Paris. In fact, he loved all great wine and would give his expertise to anyone who asked.”
A taste of Cockburn Port 1908 at the age of 13 convinced Spurrier he would one day work in wine. At age 23, he took a trainee position at London’s oldest wine merchant, Christopher and Co., for just £10 a week. That same year he met his future wife, Bella.
Six years later, the couple moved to Paris, living on a barge on the Seine. Spurrier bought a small wine shop, Les Caves de la Madeleine, from an elderly woman. He loved promoting lesser wines of France, and the shop became a hangout for fans of eclectic wines and Paris’ English-speaking community. To further promote wine, in 1973 he opened a wine school next door, L’Academie du Vin.
As America’s bicentennial approached, Spurrier thought it would be fun to hold a tasting of top Californian wines. Napa’s renaissance was starting to gain notice in America, but was unknown in France. Spurrier selected some fine examples from Napa and invited respected French judges to taste them blind before an audience on May 24, 1976. A week beforehand, Spurrier decided to include top Bordeauxs and white Burgundies as well. The panel was stunned when the wines were revealed and California wines—from Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars—had won. George Taber, a journalist from Time, reported on the event, drawing attention to America’s growing wine industry.
“Steven was a true visionary and his idea to create the Judgment of Paris—to pit the best of Bordeaux against the new wines of California—changed the history of California wine and certainly brought international and enduring recognition to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars,” said Marcus Notaro, current winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. “We are saddened by the passing of this great man. He has left a lasting impact and legacy on our winery and the world of wine.”
Spurrier returned to the U.K. in 1988 and became a wine journalist and consultant, involved in several projects, including international branches of L’Academie du Vin. He and Michael Broadbent founded the Christie’s Wine Course, and Spurrier served as director. He wrote multiple books. In 2008, Spurrier and Bella planted vines on her family’s sheep farm in Dorset, launching their own sparkling wine, Bride Valley Vineyard.
“He was, above all, a selfless promoter of wine and of people,” said Broadbent. “He had no ego or illusions of grandeur. He was charming and modest. He loved life and lived it to the full.”
Spurrier is survived by Bella and their children, Christian and Kate.
—with reporting by James Molesworth