WineInk: Remembering Steven Spurrier
The Wine World Loses a Champion
“It’s a splendid day to get left behind.”
Steven Spurrier uttered that line, late one February afternoon in 2018. He and I stood solitarily on the steps of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in St. Helena, California after walking out the front door to find our shuttle had already departed for the Meadowood Resort, leaving us stranded.
A light breeze cooled the warming rays of a winter’s sun on our faces. The views across the mustard-speckled vineyards on display on the valley floor as we looked toward Mt. St Helena and the chirping of the birds made this spot — on the grounds of what was, long ago, the old Christian Brothers Winery — feel awfully near heaven.
Others, especially those who held a position as “wine royalty” may have complained about the “getting left” part. But Steven? He genuinely appreciated the beauty that the predicament had serendipitously offered for a moment’s reflection and a California vista. He was that kind of guy.
Spurrier left us this past week surrounded by family at his home in Dorset, England where he had spent the last few years producing British bubbles using the French Traditional Method to make Bride Valley Vineyard sparkling wines. But he will remain with us forever as a towering figure in the history of modern wine. As the obits in the wine press this week heralded, Steven was, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it the “Brit who got American Wines to be taken seriously. ”
In 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, Spurrier organized a tasting to pour the best wines of France against those produced in California, the new world. The tasters represented a who’s-who of the French wine world. After selecting wines that he thought were the best California was producing in the early 1970s Spurrier, at the last minute, decided that the tasting would be blind. As we all know now the French tasters placed two California wines at the top of the table, 1973 Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.
A Time Magazine story written by George Taber marked the moment and later, a book, a pair of films and countless other re-tellings of the tale immortalized it. The moment changed the perception that quality was the provenance of the French and over the last 45 years, new world wines have ranked among the best in the world.
While it was the signature, defining moment for Spurrier, it was just that: a moment. He went on to become one of the foremost authorities on wine, writing a number of books, penning over 300 columns for Decanter magazine — the leading British wine publication — and traveling the world to meet, taste and educate wine aficionados and journalists.
Sometimes you meet your heroes and they fail to meet the lofty expectations that you ascribed to them. That was not the case in my short time with Steven. With his grey hair, pocket-square and wiry build he had the countenance of the British upper class to which he was born, paired with the Carnaby Street charm of London in the late’60’s. He came to Napa to speak at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers and to lead a tasting at the CIA of wines produced by the California wineries that had been a part of the 1976 tasting. He was charming, gracious, encouraging and pretentious in a good way.
This May 24 — the 45th anniversary of the original Judgment of Paris — Steven was scheduled to return to Napa Valley for a tasting to commemorate the event under the moniker “Judgment of Napa.” More information can be found at culturedvine.com on the events.
And how did Steven and I get back to Meadowood on that fine February day? As we sat on a bench gazing out at the Krug Winery across Highway 29, a woman and a Golden Retriever happened past. “Steven?” The woman asked, recognizing him from across the parking lot, “It’s Janet Trefethen … would you like a ride?” We piled in, with the matriarch of the Trefethen Family winery and her dog Tenaya, and after a few laughs, we were delivered to the front door of the resort as darkness began to fall.
Trefethen, a self-described “grape-grower,” had known Steven for a number of years. In 2007 Steven presented Trefethen with the award when their 2002 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was named the “Best Red Bordeaux Varietal in North America”at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London.“He was always so British, so debonair and fun to be around,” Trefethen remembered after the news of Steven’s death. “He was the perfect picture of an English gentlemen and a tremendous ambassador for wine in general, rarely saying no to requests. He will be greatly missed.”
As this is spring, bud break in Napa Valley began the week of Steven’s passing. He, no doubt, would have appreciated the coincidence and would have loved the spring mustard that has inundated Napa this week.
His was a life well lived.
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April has been decreed, for the first time, as “Sonoma County Wine Month” by the vintners and it is a righteous idea, one that should have legs long into the future.