FINE WINE Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

“Steven Spurrier as I knew him” a tribute by Giles MacDonogh

Written by Giles MacDonogh

“Steven Spurrier as I knew him” a tribute by Giles MacDonogh

“That multi-faceted man of wine, Steven Spurrier died on 9 March, six months short of his eightieth birthday. He was a good age, but his death nonetheless delivered a tremendous shock.  For someone who had not seen him since the start of the pandemic, the image I had of him was still the elegant man about town, often riding a bicycle, always impeccably dressed, and showing little or no sign of decrepitude. In fact, we learned he had been suffering from cancer for some time, and for many months he had known that it was terminal. He died as he would have wished it, surrounded by his wife of more than half a century, Bella, his children, and grandchildren.”

Steven was a wine merchant, wine teacher, wine writer, wine taster, winemaker, and wine publisher. In short, there was very little to do with wine he hadn’t done and done with notable aplomb. I had known Steven for forty-one years. I must have met him through Mark Williamson, whose highly successful Willi’s Wine Bar opened in Paris in 1980.  Mark was a Spurrier ‘Old Boy’, who had worked in Steven’s Paris wine shop, La Cave de la Madeleine before launching his own business. In the seventies and eighties, the city was full of Spurrier’s trainees, and many of these went on to become hugely important members of the British wine trade, ten or twenty years later.  Spurrier’s other outlet was his  Académie du Vin, which gave courses on wine and wine appreciation. Some of the tutors also became famous in French wine writing circles, men like Michel Bettane and Michel Dovaz, while Joel Payne, a former aid worker in Africa who followed courses at the Academy, established himself across the Rhine and became one of the most important voices on German wine.

Photo of Steven Spurrier taken for his book “A Life in Wine ” published by Amazon

“Spurrier himself wasn’t easy to get to know well. I must have glimpsed him first out with his wife pushing a baby in a pram. He had a slight stammer that became more acute when he was flustered. I suspected it was a defence mechanism, designed to make it hard to penetrate his shell. With time he let his guard slip and I was able to enjoy an occasionally wicked sense of humour. Steven’s background was pretty old school. “

He was born to a family of industrialists in Cambridge on 5 October 1941 and like Tom Brown, he went to school at Rugby. This was followed by the LSE. It is ironic perhaps that he chose to study economics, as he was by his own admission very good at losing money. He joined Christopher’s in 1964, an up-market wine merchant largely staffed by Old Etonians. He was paid £10 a week supplemented by a monthly allowance of £60 – enough to make him a lad about town in the Swinging Sixties. Early photographs show him as just that: Beatle hair-cut, droopy moustache, and bell-bottoms.

In 1964, Spurrier inherited a quarter of a million pounds,a not-so-small fortune then, and was able to do precisely what he wanted. He married Arabella Lawson in 1968, and they had two children. Then with about half the kitty lost on projects that led nowhere, in 1971 he spotted the business that would make him famous in the form of a run-down wine shop in the Cité Berryer in Paris called La Cave de la Madeleine. Once he had acquired the shop he used it for the cheekiest of purposes: to educate the French about wine: Steven taught them how to love the many local wines of France that rarely landed on Parisian tables: the Madirans and Sancerres, the wines from the Midi and the Rhone that were passed over in favour of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and not always the best either.

“In 1973, he created his Academy and three years after that he organised the event on which his fame is anchored: the Judgment of the Paris Blind Tasting where a number of wine authorities tried top French classed growths against wines from the Napa Valley and elsewhere. Elsewhere (the Napa Valley) won.  Suddenly the French supremacy in vinous matters had been challenged. The wine world was never to be the same again. To date two films have been made of the tasting, one of them starred Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier.”

 From 1980 or 1981 I began to be increasingly involved with wine. I must have visited the Cave for the first time around then. Behind the counter was the ever-charming Mauricette, abetted by Gilbert Winfield, who had taken it upon himself to be rude to Steven’s customers. I think they took it in good heart, assuming that Gilly’s style was in some way quintessentially ‘British’ and therefore to be treated like water off a duck’s back’. Later there was a third Spurrier institution in the Cité Berryer: the Blue Fox Bar, which was a joint venture with Mark Williamson and my friend Tim Johnston. Tim was one of the few Anglo-Saxon wine figures in Paris at the time never to have been employed by Spurrier. 

Photo of Steven Spurrier with Giles MacDonogh in the early days taken at Tresserre in the Languedoc in June 1991. 

With ever greater involvement with wine, I saw increasing amounts of Steven. I remember a trip to Beaujolais in – I think – 1984. I was left with Steven when he paid a call on a leading local merchant to select a cuvée. It was wonderful to watch him in action, tasting the different vats before blending two or three to make up his wine.I went back to London at the end of that year. Steven was already halfway there too, although he maintained his Paris base until the Cité Berryer was redeveloped in 1988. He lived around the corner from my sister’s place in Clapham, in a rather substantial Georgian house. A branch of the Cave de la Madeleine had opened, and instead of the Académie, he ran wine courses at Christie’s in South Kensington that were much in vogue. He was a consultant to various airlines and wrote a number of guides to wine. It was during this period I think I must have seen him most.   I was freelancing for the FT, and we went on trips to France together, sometimes organised by the French PR-man Jean-Pierre Tuil. I remember being with him in Tresserre in the Roussillon and a wonderful journey down the Loire; also another occasion at a lunch at Lucas-Carton in Paris where Alain Senderens made exquisite marriages between Vouvray and food and Prince Poniatowski opened some last bottles of his 1871, a wine made while the Prussian army laid siege to Paris.

Steven had become part of the furniture at Decanter by then, reporting on the London tastings using his fine and much-admired palate. At the beginning of the new millennium, he and Sarah Kemp at Decanter cooked up the Decanter World Wine Awards that were to become the biggest wine tournament based in Britain with tasters selected on the basis of their regional expertise. These were supervised by regional chairmen and women who played the role of bishops, while less than a handful of archbishops worked directly under our infallible pope, who was naturally Steven. As the bishop responsible for Germany and Austria I had the right to call on Steven to settle differences between my warring clergy. He frequently confirmed a gold medal using his well-worn deciding formula: ‘what more does this wine have to do to achieve gold?’

“Steven stood down at seventy-five, and it was the year I left too. For anyone else, it might have been a punctuation mark: the moment to retire to his manor house in Dorset where he and Bella had planted Chardonnay vines on Kimmeridgian soil (same as Chablis) to make Bride Valley sparkling wine.”

He had published an apologia in the form of an autobiography

Wine and his cellar were deep and he had been amassing pictures for many years to create an impressive art collection. But Steven rolled the dice one more time and launched the Académie du Vin Library: a new publishing house aimed at reviving up-market wine books. He bearded me at a Marques de Riscall unch and asked me if I would do a book for the list. It was perhaps one of the last half dozen times I saw him to speak to.

Soon all talk of new books was subsumed beneath the cataclysmic events of recent times, and Steven Spurrier was no more. 


About the author

Giles MacDonogh

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