Meet Steven Spurrier - Father of the Judgment of Paris
Since 1964 Steven Spurrier’s work on behalf of his favorite beverage has been a somewhat circuitous one, having led him for the past few years in developing his Bride Valley vineyard & winery at his Dorset England home. His international stature was assured in 1976 when self-employed as a Paris wine merchant, he organized and led the ‘Judgement of Paris’ (JoP), a blind tasting for the French trade and media pairing some of the best Bordeaux and Burgundy along side California Cabernet sauvignons and Chardonnays. The news that some from California triumphed over some from France led TIME magazine to run it as a cover story, assuring Spurrier’s place in wine history. He’s authored several wine books, founded France’s first private wine school and later Christie's Wine Course which he now directs. Since 1993 Spurrier has been a columnist, since 1998 additionally consulting editor to Decanter magazine for which he chairs its World Wine Awards. During my tenure on the England-based Circle of Wine Writers Executive Committee (he’s now its president) we’d numerous encounters through it and tasting together for Decanter magazine, leading him to ask me to act as the sommelier for the 30th anniversary JoP held at London’s Berry Bros. & Rudd; the 40th anniversary tasting will be this January at Naples Winter Wine Festival.
And you, too, apparently. The first line of your Wikipedia entry states that he “has been described as a champion of French wine.” How do you reconcile that description with what might have been your assumed intention to conduct the JoP, and for the outcome of it?
Before this occurred it wasn’t as though that France was clamoring for California wines and that France’s honor necessitated defending. Wikipedia can take things from wherever it wants. I was a champion of French wine because I worked in Paris 18-20 years involved with the old and established wines along with the newer ones, even writing the first book on French country wines, the Vins de Pays. I put on the Judgement of Paris because we were doing lots of things like that at the Academie du Vin. I was the first person in France to import proper vintage Port, Sherries, Madeiras at a time the French weren’t interested in any wines except their own. Promoting non-French wines was one of the things we did there. My partner there, Patricia, went to California and wanted put on a tasting of them, but it was my idea to put on one with the equivalent wines from France. I thought that of the top-of-the-line tasters we’d asked only Aubert du Villaine, married to a woman from San Francisco, would’ve ever tasted California wines as all that most French at that time knew of California was that it was north of Mexico. The only to get them to give an informed judgement was by having a blind tasting; and the rest is history. I was the last person expecting them to win.
With the approach of 40 years hindsight, how has 1976’s JoP effected today's broad understanding of wine?
In hindsight it was a win-win situation all around. I got bad marks in France for showing chinks in their armor but it’s no coincidence that the first vintage of Opus One was 1979. I wouldn’t say that the JoP caused Mondavi and Baron Philippe to get together but it really was instrumental for making them farm their own brand. It put California wines on the map, particularly Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Very quickly the intelligent, younger French went to California to find out what was going on; they saw tons of money, a commitment to making the best wine possible when France was good at taking it all for granted. When did the JoP 30 years on in London and Napa we did the tasting open with the same wines but from the 2000 vintage. That tasting saw California take all five of the top places whereas in 1976 it took only three of the top slots. This denied the French opinion that we were tasting their wines too young and that they’d only show best if we allowed them to age. It showed that the French were resting on their laurels. It created a template through which an unknown wine could compare itself as long as the people tasting them are viable to give them recognition.
In your opinion, since then in which ways have the French surpassed their past, and also not reached their best?
Which are some of the world’s most underestimated wine-producing areas?
Commerce or art--how ought the budding sommelier see his/her work?
What are your most and least favorite experiences in encountering sommeliers at work?
What might European and US sommeliers learn from one another?
With a decades-long career selling bottles and communicating of wine, how does it feel to now be on the production side of it?
With a relatively low production and high consumer demand at home, how is it you came to choose the US as Bride Valley's first export market outside Europe?
The changing nature of wine communications--what's going right, what's going wrong?
If wine didn't exist, your chosen career would've been...