Ars longa, vita brevis. The famous Latin tag, usually translated as “Life is long, but art is longer” might be Steven Spurrier’s motto. As the renowned wine writer explains over a series of interviews for a wide-ranging feature in the new issue of Club Oenologique, “Wine is a way of life, but art is the real thing.”
Spurrier spoke to Club O’s Adam Lechmere over a six-month period in London and at his house in the village of Litton Cheney in Dorset. For someone who has spent nearly six decades immersed in wine, and for whom the pursuit has brought renown – even fame, in some quarters – it might seem shocking to hear Spurrier reveal that it is not the most important thing in his life. “The final chapter [of his autobiography A Life in Wine, just re-issued by Académie du Vin Library] is called Wine and Art, and I come down on the side of art,” he tells Lechmere. “Art means more to me emotionally than wine – there’s no contest.”
While the renowned critic’s long and distinguished career in wine is the backbone of the article – his early days as a young-man-about-town, earning £10 a week at the wine merchant Christopher’s, discovering Bordeaux and Burgundy, moving to Paris and buying a dingy wine shop called La Cave de la Madeleine, putting on a comparative tasting of French and California wines that will forever be known as the Judgement of Paris – Spurrier’s relationship with art is its theme.
In a frank and expansive interview, Spurrier looks back to his upbringing in Derbyshire in a house with a dozen servants “both inside and out”, and the windfall that brought him riches beyond the dreams of any 24-year-old but “completely unbalanced” his life. As he tells Lechmere, the huge cheque his father gave him in 1964 may have unbalanced him, but it didn’t derail him. Despite now being independently wealthy, he carried on working. “I was never a playboy,” he stresses. “I had a very strong work ethic.”
He came home one night to find Jimi Hendrix in his sitting room
The money enabled him to indulge his passion for art. In swinging London (and indeed it swung – Spurrier came home one night to find Jimi Hendrix in his sitting room) he haunted the auction rooms, the art galleries and the antiques markets. The first picture he bought (“for six guineas”) was a Stubbs engraving, still on the wall on the upper landing at the Spurriers’ fine old manor house in Dorset. He collected Georgian silver and art deco lamps, and he chanced upon his namesake, an artist called Steven Spurrier, in front of whose works he stands in the main image above.
Every wall of every room in Dorset is covered with canvasses (Spurrier’s wife Bella is also an accomplished amateur artist, who for the first time has her own studio in a converted outhouse), but it is the sculpture collection that has occupied Spurrier’s time in his retirement.
The garden at Litton Cheney is extensive, with mature trees, beeches and oak, and a decent-sized stream running through it. Behind it lie the lush green hills of the Jurassic Coast (Bride Valley Vineyard, which produces the Spurriers’ acclaimed English sparkling wine, is a 20-minute walk away). The few dozen visitors that the house and vineyard attract each week do a tour of the vineyard, stroll through the sculpture garden (housing the likes of Reading Hare by Clare Trenchard (above), and works by Marzia Colonna and Caroline White), and visit the upstairs room in which are displayed their host’s many awards and gifts from his career. “Other wineries spend millions on their tasting rooms, but this is all very personal,” Spurrier says.
In his conversations with Lechmere, Spurrier gives the very strong impression that he has embarked on a new, quieter chapter of his life. He has sold the big west London flat in which their children grew up, and settled permanently in Dorset. Spurrier is as busy as ever, though at a different pace: as well as the vineyard, he curates his art and books, and consults for the IWSC and the Academie du Vin Library.
Art, books and wine: “This is the idea of a gentleman’s way of life,” he says, before concluding: “There are three important things in life: someone to love; something to do; and something to look forward to.”
Steven Spurrier: A Life in Wine is published 1 December by Académie du Vin Library at £30. To order the book with a £5 discount, visit academieduvinlibrary.com and quote code CLUB20