On March 9, 2021, the world lost a legend. Steven Spurrier wore many hats and had many talents, among them: wine merchant, expert, critic, and organizer. But he was also a wine enthusiast, devoted husband, father, grandfather, and friend. He was so many things to so many people, and he was an absolute force in the wine industry.
Spurrier’s wine career began in 1970 when he purchased a wine shop, Les Caves de la Madeleine, where clients were encouraged to taste wines before they bought them. The shop quickly achieved recognition as a highly regarded specialist wine retailer.
In 1973 he founded L’Academie du Vin, France’s first private wine school.
Spurrier went on to stage the famous “Judgement of Paris” Wine Tasting of 1976.
The last challenge he took on was that of the vintner. He planted his vineyard at his wife’s farm in Dorset’s Bride Valley in 2009 and made English sparkling wine. A project he described as “the last throw of the Spurrier wine dice.”
The Judgement of Paris
Perhaps the biggest irony of Spurrier’s career was that he had long been considered a true champion of French wines – but as an organizer of the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting, he unexpectedly helped to propel the “New World” California wines to the same prestigious level as their French counterparts.
“On June 7, 1976, a story in Time Magazine announced to the world the shocking results of the now-famous Paris Tasting: Two California wines had, according to a panel of France’s most glorified oenophiles, bested their French counterparts in the head-on blind competition.”
From: “Man of the Year: André Tchelistcheff,” John N. Hutchison, Wines and Vines, March 1990
Bruce Byrd, founder of Byrd Vineyards, highly recommends the book Judgement of Paris: California vs.France and The Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George M. Tabor.
He recalls: “I bought George Tabor’s book as a step in becoming more knowledgeable about Old World wines vs New World wines. I was not disappointed. It sets up the way wine was perceived at that time. Of course, France was the pinnacle of fine wine brands at the time. California, not so much. Tabor introduces us to Steven Spurrier and his organizers that put this tasting together. Spurrier and the nine expert wine judges opened up the experience of wine appreciation to a much larger audience than it ever had prior.”
Spurrier received several awards for his writings on wine, including Le Prix de Champagne Lanson and the Bunch Prize, both for articles published in Decanter Magazine. In total, he wrote over 300 wine-related articles.
In 2001 he was awarded Le Grand Prix de l’Academie Internationale du Vin and The Maestro Award in honor of Andre Tchelistcheff.
In 1988 he was made Le Personalite de l’Annee (Oenology) for his services to French wine. He has also received the Ritz Carlton Millennia Singapore Lifetime Achievement Award and the Prix Louis Marinier.
He was also a regular judge on the international wine tasting circuit, as the chairman of both the Japan Wine Challenge and the Decanter World Wine Awards.
According to Advanced Sommelier Michael A. Descamps, Spurrier was a “titan in the international wine world and the American wine industry.”
Descamps went on to add “Sommeliers like myself owe him a great deal. His organization of the famed ‘Judgment of Paris’ tasting in 1976 helped to open the door to the world (and to many Americans) on the possibility of how great American (California for the tasting) wines could be.
His work helped bring not just American wines into focus, but also wine in general. As a wine professional, I enjoyed his writing stints with ‘Decanter’ magazine, which often reflected his unique point of view and sardonic wit.
I am sorry to have not had the chance to have met him, but the many of my colleagues who had always speak of him with reverence and how much a ‘gentleman’ he was. The wine world, and the culinary world at large, lost a giant when they lost him.”
There’s no doubt that the impact Steven Spurrier had on the wine industry was huge. He was a larger-than-life (yet quite humble) type of person, often referred to as bringing “youthful enthusiasm” to everything he did. He was a modest man who went from champion of French wines to champion of good wines from around the world. So raise a glass to him the next time you open a bottle of your favorite wine. He will be missed.