A few years ago, Steven Spurrier, in Washington DC to judge a wine competition, went to see a band called Palace, whose lead guitarist happened to be his nephew. The eminent wine critic, then well into his 70s, found it was standing room only at the small and sweaty venue. “I managed to grab a beer and squeezed in about five rows from the front, surrounded by a wildly expectant young crowd,” he recalls in his memoir, A Life In Wine.
“After a warm-up act, Palace appeared to thunderous applause and I pushed myself towards the stage to wave at Rupert, who waved back. Two girls wheeled round, exclaiming ‘My God, you actually KNOW Rupert!’ to which I proudly replied, ‘Yes, I’m his uncle.’ On the long taxi ride back I reflected that it was good to be known in Washington DC for something other than the Judgement of Paris.”
The episode captures some of the many facets of Steven Spurrier, who has died of cancer aged 79. Many of those who knew him well talk of his energy, his indefatigable curiosity, and his sheer interest in all that life has to offer. Jumping in a cab and going halfway across town to see a band, when most of his peers were relaxing in their hotels, would have been quite in character.
Spurrier was born in Cambridge in 1941, into a well-to-do family of Lancashire manufacturers. A paternal great-great uncle had founded the Lancashire Steam Motor Company in 1896 which eventually became British Leyland; Spurrier’s grandfather built up a sand and gravel business that later provided the young Steven with an independent fortune.
Life in the Spurrier family would be recognised by anyone familiar with the social history of the upper classes of mid-20th-century England. The family had bought Marston Hall in Derbyshire from the Duke of Devonshire just after the First World War, but their roots in the county go back centuries – Steven’s father John had been churchwarden at St Mary’s Church in Marston “in an unbroken line that went back to 1628”.
The type of world the young Spurrier and his beloved elder brother Nicky grew up in has become such a staple of box-set drama that it seems implausible now. “Grandpa Spurrier was a hunting, shooting, fishing country squire…my mother’s family lived more on the east side of the county, spending the summer and the shooting and stalking season on their estate on Scotland’s Loch Linnhe,” he recalled.
Hunting and shooting aside, Spurrier’s parents were of a creative, artistic bent – before the war John Spurrier was in publishing and his wife Pamela was a journalist – and they instilled in Steven a lifelong love of art. “In my lifetime I have spent much, much more on art than on wine,” he has said. As a young man in London, he haunted the galleries of Mayfair and the antique shops in Portobello Road. Today, his house in Dorset is full of paintings and objets d’art (on the landing there’s a Stubbs engraving, the first picture he ever bought, in 1958, for six guineas); his sculpture garden, dotted with monumental abstracts, was completed last year.
His other passion, of course, was wine. In his memoir he recalls his first taste of port when he was 13. “The decanter was moved in my direction. The wine, Cockburn’s 1908, was quite extraordinary, and the impression it left has lasted a lifetime. That was my Damascene moment, the moment when the seed was firmly planted for my life in wine.”
Spurrier’s upbringing was privileged, moneyed, and a trifle rackety. If his parents seem romantic figures, the reality was rather more prosaic. Spurrier père never managed to get his publishing career going again after the Second World War, and he came back home to work in the sand and gravel business for his father. “He hated it,” Spurrier told me during one of our several interviews.
Determined that his sons would never lose their independence as he had done, in 1964, enabled by the sale of the business, John Spurrier gave them sums of money that would ensure they would never have to work again. “I was given a cheque for £250,000, which in today’s money would be at least £5 million. My father wanted to see that this huge amount of money would give us complete independence, so what happened to him could never possibly happen to us.”
Spurrier’s financial independence enabled him to follow his twin passions of wine and art
Spurrier was always frank about the effect this windfall had on him. He was working at the Soho wine merchant Christopher’s, taking home £10 a week. He already had an allowance of £50 a month, which in the early 1960s provided a perfectly good income for a young man in London. To suddenly find himself independently wealthy “was totally confusing. It completely unbalanced my life.” But he had determination and character, and continued to work, banking his £10 from Christopher’s along with the life-changing cheque. He bought a house in Fulham; he hung out with the hepcats, met Jimi Hendrix, and – a target for the plausible rogues that were a feature of swinging London – watched his fortune run through his hands like so much fine sand.
He sank money into nightclubs and films. £30,000 went into a new branch of Sybilla’s nightclub in the Bahamas (“How could anyone be so stupid?”), £20,000 into films like 1968’s Dolly Story (a classic of its time and worth searching out on YouTube); more still went into restaurants which never saw the light of day. “I got the money in spring 1964 and by the winter of 1967, half of it had been taken away from me.”
The money was both disabling and enabling. By his own admission a less-than-astute businessman, Spurrier obviously had the determination and work ethic of his successful forebears. “I was never a playboy,” he was at pains to tell me. His financial independence enabled him to follow the twin passions of wine and art that had been instilled in him by his parents; he continued to work, moving from Christopher’s to a new wine merchant called Murray & Banbury (into which he sank another portion of his fortune). Having money meant that he could do what was most valuable for anyone trying to get on in the wine trade: he could travel.
The Spurriers (he met Bella at the Queensway Ice Skating Rink in 1964, and she remained a warm and acerbic presence at his side for more than 50 years) were able to lead a hedonistic life, hopping from the Douro to Provence, Champagne to Chablis in a flurry of auberges and hotels and the villas and pièds-a-terre of friends with double-barrelled names.
In his memoir, the 1960s and 1970s pass in a technicolour whirl: houses are bought and sold, business deals ventured upon and lost until the Spurriers land in Paris, and one day, happening on a dingy wine shop called Les Caves de la Madeleine, Steven turns to his friend and says “That’s exactly the kind of shop I would like to buy.” “Let’s go inside,” the friend replies.
That particular story is so well-known as to be apocryphal. The Spurriers threw themselves into the life of Parisian wine merchants with brio and imagination. Spurrier quickly got rid of the tanks of vins ordinaires at the back of the shop and started bringing in wine direct from wineries. He imported English sparkling from Hambledon Vineyard for a visit by the Queen and Prince Philip, and built up a thriving clientele of professional American expats.
In 1976, to celebrate the bicentennial of American Independence, Spurrier – increasingly impressed by the wines from the west coast of America – decided to hold a tasting comparing the best of Californian and French wines. At the last minute he decided to make it blind, reasoning that the French critics he had invited would be naturally biased. Californian wines came out top and he was instantly propelled to fame – and a degree of notoriety.
Indeed, he was so well known that eventually he came to the attention of not one but two Hollywood producers. One film, with a script approved by Spurrier himself, never got off the ground. In another, unauthorised film, the critically panned Bottle Shock (2008), he was portrayed as an absurd English fop by the late Alan Rickman.
Fame notwithstanding, Spurrier’s career was in many ways chequered. Les Caves de la Madeleine was a success, and the opening of a wine school, the Académie du Vin, with his friend Patricia Gallagher similarly thrived – but an expansion into New York was a traumatic failure. “It didn’t work and I threw money at it and the whole house of cards collapsed,” he said in 2013. “It was a complete disaster, a nightmare year. I don’t talk about it. Bella has not been back to New York since.”
The Spurriers returned to London in 1989. As he recalled it, he was “bust and totally out of the English wine trade.” But he was still a very well-known name and was able to land a job heading the Harrods wine department. Although he fell out with then owner Mohamed Al-Fayed within a few months, he was quickly absorbed into the dynamic London wine trade; when Decanter’s publishing director Sarah Kemp asked him to write a column, his life “emphatically” changed, he said. He travelled endlessly to speak on panels and to judge at competitions; he secured a lucrative contract consulting for Singapore Airlines; and he became indispensable to Kemp as she built Decanter into a formidable international brand; in the early 2000s he was instrumental in creating the Decanter World Wine Awards, and was its first chairman.
In the last few years, a new phase of life started for the Spurriers. Last year they sold their London flat and moved full time to Dorset. Bella intended to paint and run the Bride Valley vineyard they had planted and whose sparkling wine is gaining increasing renown; Steven would curate his artworks, receive visitors to the vineyard and sculpture garden, and consult for the IWSC and Académie du Vin Library, the recently created imprint which had taken on the name of his old wine school. “This is the idea of a gentleman’s way of life,” he told me.
Spurrier was a much-loved figure in the international wine world. He loved to party (at one bibulous event in the Médoc it was noted that he had possibly gone over even the very generous drink-drive threshold allowed by the Bordeaux police. “Never mind, I’ll dance myself sober,” he announced). He never missed a good dinner. His memoir is studded with lists of fine wines and fine dishes – he was almost late for his own wedding as he tracked down “punnets of fraises des bois from Morocco that had been destined for Annabel’s”.
But he was admired for much more than his party style. His knowledge of wine was encyclopaedic, and his power of recall acute, but most important of all he had a curiosity and a generosity of spirit that endeared him to winemakers the world over. He was welcome at literally any winery in the world, from the great domaines of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany or Spain to the famous properties of California, Argentina and Chile. He might chair a masterclass of 12 Chardonnays, half of which he had never tasted, and give an accurate summation of each. He would never turn down a wine that interested him, and he was interested in everything.
“He was a quality purist, and it didn’t matter where the wine came from,” says Sarah Kemp. “What counted was how it tasted and developed. It was this openness and objectivity that inspired a legion of international admirers and he set a standard in evaluating wine beyond the classic regions.” Christelle Guibert, former tastings director at Decanter and now CEO of Club Oenologique and the IWSC, agrees. “He always listened to other people’s opinions and was always so enthusiastic about new regions or grape varieties. He was an inspiration to me and one of the biggest role models in my professional, and indeed personal life.” A contemporary of equal eminence, Hugh Johnson, considered Spurrier “more knowledgeable about wine than anyone I know – and not just the classics, but all the modern trends as well.”
Steven Spurrier was an unusual man. He was in many ways typical of the mid-20th-century English upper class, but in so many more ways he transcended that particular niche. Erudite, worldly and sophisticated, he was difficult to categorise. Generations of wine lovers would claim him as their own: after all, his memoir was called A Life In Wine. But he was a man of parts, as they used to say of clever, complex people. Wine was his passion and it brought him fame, but it was art that inspired him. “Wine is a way of life but art is the real thing,” he told me at our last interview. “Art means more to me emotionally than wine – there’s no contest.”
Steven Spurrier (5 October 1941 – 9 March 2021) is survived by his wife Bella, his son Christian and daughter Kate, and four grandchildren
To read the last published interview with Steven Spurrier, from the current print edition of Club Oenologique, see here