Steven Spurrier, wine retailer, writer, educator and vineyard owner, the man who put Napa Valley on the map of classic wine regions, died March 9, 2021 at his home in Bride Valley Vineyard, Dorset, England. He was 79.
Known for his charm and unfailing politeness, he was also a determined man, eager to spread the word about good wines to as many people as possible. In his understated way, he was firm and single-minded. If a project or an enthusiasm (and he had many of both) didn’t work out (and many didn’t), he moved on to the next. There was always a next.
Spurrier attended private school in England, followed by the London School of Economics, but wine became a passion early on.
In 1971, he first came to fame as a wine retailer when he opened La Cave de la Madeleine in Paris. This wasn’t just any shop and wine bar, either. Its mission was to show consumers that French wine wasn’t just Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. In Spurrier’s time and still today, La Cave de la Madeleine stocks wines from every corner of the country.
It was this sense of discovery, of wanting to show that the wine world was vast, that led Spurrier to the event for which he is most famous among Americans: the so-called Judgement of Paris in 1976. Originally conceived as an open tasting of California wines in Paris, Spurrier came to the last-minute decision to hold it as a blind tasting, putting the best Bordeaux and Burgundy at the same table as those from Napa. The results stunned the French: two wines from Napa, Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1973, placed first in both categories. Napa never looked back and the French took a long time to forgive Spurrier. He never received formal French awards.
His career was made up of enthusiasms, of delight in discovery and a willingness always to mentor and advise people who wanted to know more about wine. The more obscure the wine tasting in London, the more likely Spurrier was to be there, impeccably dressed and curious to learn. His restlessness and openness to new ideas and wines led him in many business directions both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Many failed, and sometimes he left them because a new idea came along.
Education was a theme throughout his life. He held innumerable master classes, served 27 years as a columnist and consultant editor for the U.K. wine magazine Decanter, and was author and co-author of several wine books.
Possibly his greatest legacy will be as the founder of the Académie du Vin in 1973. Until 1988, it flourished as a means of bringing wine knowledge to a wider audience. In 2018, Spurrier and Nancy Gilchrist MW revived the wine classes in London. Allied to that is the Académie du Vin Library that publishes new and reinvigorates classic wine books and, of course, Spurrier’s 2020 autobiography, A Life in Wine.
Tributes continue to pour in on Twitter and elsewhere from old friends, and from those he may have only met once but on whom he made meaningful impressions.
His last enthusiasm and passion was his own vineyard and his own wine. In 2008, he planted a hillside opposite his home in southern England with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The first harvest from Bride Valley Vineyard was in 2011, which sold out on release in 2014.
Steven Spurrier is survived by his wife and partner of 53 years, Arabella, and by his children, Kate and Christian. A memorial service and donations are to be determined.