Late one night, sometime in the mid-1960s, Steven Spurrier came back to his house in Fulham to find his sitting room full of people. His lodger, a Swiss au pair who was trying to get into the music business, had invited a few friends home. When Spurrier put his head round the door, ‘a young black guy clutching a guitar got up and said, “Hi, I’m Jimi.”’ Spurrier politely returned the greeting, wished everyone good night and went off to bed. The next morning the au pair – whose name was Susi Spörri, from Zurich, he recalls – asked him if he’d enjoyed meeting Jimi Hendrix.
Spurrier, who is 80 next year, can remember episodes from 50 years earlier with a granularity of recall most of us couldn’t summon from last week. Who else can remember the exact spelling of a lodger’s name, complete with umlaut, from half a century ago?
Photographs from the period show Spurrier often embraced the sartorial spirit of the age: Sgt Pepper moustache, leather trousers, psychedelic shirts… Hendrix might have recognised a fellow hepcat when the young wine merchant made his all-too-brief appearance.
Spurrier’s memoir, Wine – A Way of Life (soon to be reissued as A Life in Wine), is packed with such minutiae. The wines, of course, form a kind of chorus – here he is at Coates’s Wine Bar in Old Broad Street: ‘I have pleasant recollections of Château MacCarthy [from] St-Estèphe and Langoa-Barton 1953, both at 13/6- (65p) a bottle; Pichon-Comtesse just two shillings (10p) more, and a whole raft of 1955 classed growths at the same sort of price.’ He scours the Portobello Road for antiques (a pair of Georgian candlesticks here, a Stubbs there); meals are recounted as if he can still taste them. On his wedding day, he tracked down ‘punnets of fraises des bois from Morocco that were destined for Annabel’s’.
And it’s not only wine and strawberries and Georgian silver. When he buys the Fulham house (the one Hendrix dropped in on), it needs a bit of work: ‘The tired stretch of lawn in the west-facing garden was replaced by slabs of York stone, in the middle of which I had a fountain built, whose large basin could accommodate many bottles of wine for summer chilling. The basement became a dining room and large kitchen, while in the hallway I installed face-to-face wine racks that held 360 bottles each.’
The presence of money, and lots of it, lends Spurrier’s life a novelistic quality. In 1964, the 24-year-old Steven and his brother Nick were given cheques for £250,000. (His grandfather had just sold his sand-and-gravel business to Blue Circle Cement, and this was the boys’ dividend.) In today’s terms, that would equate to at least £5m. ‘It completely unbalanced my life,’ he says during one of our many conversations over the last few months.
Up to then, the young Spurrier had been happy with a private monthly allowance of £60 and his £10 weekly salary from the wine merchant Christopher’s, a more-than-adequate income for a young man about town in the ‘60s. He became exceedingly wealthy at a stroke, but that didn’t him stop working at Christopher’s and, later, at a new wine merchant called Murray & Banbury. ‘I had a very strong work ethic – I was never a playboy,’ he says.
Nonetheless, his wealth made him a target for the plausible rogues who were a feature of swinging London. He sank money into nightclubs, including a new branch of Sybilla’s (‘How could anyone be so stupid as to put money into a nightclub in the Bahamas?’); into films that never quite got the distribution they deserved (or didn’t deserve, as the case may be – 1968’s Dolly Story is a classic of its time and worth searching out on YouTube); into restaurants that 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.’
Like a 20th-century version of one of Henry Fielding’s or Thackeray’s heroes, it’s luck rather than money that seems to have directed Spurrier’s life. He spends most of the ‘60s zooming around Europe in an open-top car (a Triumph Herald first, then a Vitesse – ‘I could have bought an E-Type if I’d wanted, but I never threw money around’) with Bella, whom he met at the Queensway Ice Skating Rink in 1964 and who is a warm and acerbic presence at his side, more than half a century later. They hop from the Douro to Provence, Champagne to Chablis in a whirl of auberges and hotels and the villas and pied-à-terres of double-barrel-monikered friends. Houses are bought and sold, business deals ventured upon and lost, until the Spurriers land in Paris. There, one day, happening on a dingy wine shop called La Cave 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.
The rest of the story is well documented. 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 the vineyards. He imported 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 that were coming out of the west coast of the United States – decided to hold a tasting comparing the best offerings from California and France. At the last minute, he thought to make it blind, reasoning that the French critics he had invited would be naturally biased. The California wines came out top, and he was instantly propelled to the fame – and a degree of notoriety – that has been with him ever since.
I went to see the Spurriers at their manor house on the Dorset coast in March, just before lockdown. They bought the house in 1987 (retaining their roomy Hammersmith flat as a London residence). It’s a fine old stone house in the village of Litton Cheney with extensive gardens and a farm, 10 hectares of which have been planted to Champagne grape varieties to make the highly regarded Bride Valley English Sparkling. While Spurrier is – naturally – the figurehead, the vineyard is run by Bella and winemaker Ian Edwards, who vinifies at the neighbouring Furleigh Estate. The house, and garden, are given up to Spurrier’s twin passions of wine and art.
There’s very much a sense of a life moving into a new, more relaxed phase. (This feeling is made even stronger when I drop into the Hammersmith flat. It’s just been sold, the walls are bare and Spurrier is wrapping his, literally, hundreds of paintings). Down at Litton Cheney, the sculpture garden is now complete. Spurrier takes me around. Monumental abstracts by Marzia Colonna (an old friend and former neighbour) and Caroline White stand among the beech trees, with a small brook running between them. There’s a pond, the old grey walls of the house, and then behind us rise the lush green hills of the Jurassic Coast. It’s a discreet and intimate space, open to the public now and attracting a few dozen visitors a week. ‘Other wineries spend millions on their tasting rooms, but this is all very personal,’ Spurrier says. He always comes out to say hello to visitors, who are taken around the vineyard, stroll the sculpture garden, and visit the upstairs room in which are displayed their host’s many awards and gifts from his long life in wine.
It’s a scene so modest and understated – and so very English. Spurrier has traded on his Englishness since he first bought La Cave de la Madeleine and put an ad in the International Herald Tribune declaring, ‘Your wine merchant speaks English.’ In reality, he’s a genuine cosmopolitan, as comfortable at the corrida in Seville as in a London club. He’s always cut a dashing figure – dark suits in winter, light in summer, handkerchief in breast pocket – but his shoes are hand-made in Paris, and the cut of his jacket has always been a little bit too sharp for St James’s Street.
This worldliness is reflected in his tastes. There are those in the wine world who can talk about nothing but wine; Spurrier’s interests range far and wide. His windfall unbalanced his life in one way, but it freed him to indulge his passion for collecting. Every wall of the house in Dorset is covered; on every sideboard or chest of drawers sits a sculpture. ‘The house is a matter of aesthetics and pleasure. You improve and embellish for your own pleasure and for others,’ he says. There’s a Stubbs engraving, the first picture he ever bought, in 1958, ‘for six guineas’. There is a whole set of Goya’s Tauromaquia in the study – ‘I used to follow bullfighting’ – Bella’s watercolours on the stairs, a portrait of Steven aged about 12, looking keen in a school blazer. A particular favourite, and a chance discovery, is the artist Steven Spurrier (no relation), a prolific Royal Academician who died in 1961. Spurrier is delighted at the serendipity of the name. ‘There’s no value for money in him. I buy his work for enjoyment rather than possession.’ Such qualities are seen in a large canvas with red-faced drinkers, dancing sailors and women singing lustily in a scene that gives a sense of postwar debauchery.
There are three important things in life: someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to
Spurrier has a reputation – which he cheerfully acknowledges – for a lack of business sense. He was certainly a mark for conmen in the early days. ‘A lot of money was stolen from me,’ he says. ‘People who had ideas and no money found me an easy touch.’ And so many of his ventures eventually collapsed. Even the fame brought by the 1976 tasting couldn’t prevent the folding of the Paris business, which had expanded into the Académie du Vin school (now resurrected as the publishing house Académie du Vin Library, a sister company to Club Oenologique), and Spurrier returned to London more or less broke. But like that Fielding hero again, something always turned up. Capitalising on his reputation within the wine industry, he became Harrods’ wine consultant (he fell out with the then owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed, soon afterwards); then he met Sarah Kemp, who was publishing director of Decanter and made him the face of the magazine, a counterpart to éminence grise Michael Broadbent MW. Decanter put him back on his feet. ‘Having a permanent position as a columnist on a monthly magazine changed everything.’
Sitting in the kitchen in Litton Cheney with a bottle of Bride Valley Dorset Chardonnay (the 2018 vintage was warm enough to produce a notably zingy still wine), Spurrier is leafing through a dog-eared first edition of Elizabeth David. ‘I’d no idea we had this,’ he says. He’s talking about collecting, looking back over his early years in London, when he was at LSE, visiting Cork Street galleries and Portobello Road. ‘I had a magpie collecting instinct. I still find it very hard to pass a gallery without buying something.’
Funnily for someone so indelibly associated with wine, whose biography is titled A Life in Wine, we spend very little time talking about it. In the end, he says, there are more important things. For the new edition of his book, he’s written two more chapters. ‘The final chapter is called “Wine and Art”, and I come down on the side of art,’ he says. ‘Wine has been my life, but art has been an addictive hobby. Wine is a way of life, but art is the real thing. Art means more to me emotionally than wine – there’ s no contest.’
He has now come to a quieter existence in Dorset. There are three important things in life, he says: ‘someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to’. In his case this means his 50-year marriage to Bella (‘the companionship is enlivening’); curating his art and books; and the progress of his vineyard and consulting for the IWSC and Académie du Vin Library. ‘This is the idea of a gentleman’s way of life,’ he says. In that peculiar English way, he is a strange mix of the passionate and the laconic. ‘Discreet and elegant, that is the key – no bling.’ He is describing his winemaking philosophy, but it could just as easily stand for his life.
Steven Spurrier: A Life in Wine is available from Académie du Vin Library at £30. To order the book with a £5 discount, visit academieduvinlibrary.com and quote the code DRINKINGHOUR5 on checkout
A teaser of this article was first published here on 1 December 2020, and then updated on 9 March 2021.