Paris in the mid-1970s. All wine was old world, and all labels that mattered were French. Then an Englishman came along and changed all the rules.
“I was a square peg in a round hole,” says Steven Spurrier, discussing how he became one of the wine-world’s most influential voices. Spurrier is best known for ‘The Judgment of Paris’ in 1976. At a time when French wine was considered supreme, he got the country’s most respected palates to blind-taste Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from France and California.
The Californian wines won in every category. “It was a huge surprise. In several cases, shock. One judge was very upset and wanted her notes back!” he chuckles, adding that he offered to make her copies instead. The French judges – secure in the superiority of their wine – had just naturally assumed they had picked the French wines. After all, they didn’t even consider the upstart new world wines contendors.
Even London, where Spurrier started his career, “was about old world wine: French, German, Italian…” It was the mid-1960s, Spurrier was straight out of college and enamoured with the business. “To be a wine merchant was a very respectable profession. When I told my father that’s what I wanted to do, all he said was, ‘Well, if you’re sure you won’t drink too much’.” Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “If I had said I wanted to be a bar tender on the hand, he probably wouldn’t have been okay with that!”
However, after learning the ropes for a year, he ended up getting married and abandoning the wine business for a stab at Hollywood style romance. He and his wife bough a crumbling mansion in the South of France “We were up in the Hills of Var. From there we could see the mountains. We could see the sea.” Over here they worked on restoring the house, and dabbling in antiques. “I had inherited a lot of money from my grandfather. I could do what I want. I was a rich kid! And I liked to do romantic things…”
However, by the mid-1970s, they realised they wanted more out of life. So Spurrier and his wife gave up on the house and moved to Paris, where he intended to get back into the wine trade.
“I bought a wine shop on Rue Royale. It was a perfect location, in the centre of everything,” smiles Spurrier. he began by catering to the local expatriate population. “I put an advertisement in the Herald Tribune saying ‘Your winemaker speaks English’.”
“I was in the forefront, and I was lucky enough to be young, energetic,” he smiles. “I was made out to be a mover and shaker. I had long hair, flared trousers and a moustache when the wine makers in Paris wore berets and jeans. I became known as ‘The Englishman who has the wine shop.’
The wine shop inspired a wine school, which is turn became a lively meeting place for tourists and wine sellers. The Californian wine makers came by with their bottles, impressing Spurrier with teh quality of their wine. Then his partner went to California and returned raving about the wine there. Hence the blind tasting.
Spurrier says all he wanted out it was to demonstrate Californian wines had potential. “I would have liked them to come in second or fourth. It didn’t even occur to me that they could win.” He adds: “That was the first crack in the wall of French supremacy. It wasn’t what I was after. And, it didn’t please me at all. I had set out to make a statement — but this was an exaggeration of what I was trying to do.”
It certainly didn’t help with fitting in. “The French were understandably very upset,” he says. Of course, the Americans were ecstatic. “In California I had become a cult hero. They should have named streets after me!”
Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “In hindsight I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.” In 1950, there were 40 wineries in California. Now, there are 4,000. “It opened the world to new-world wines.”
Thanks to this vote of confidence “from the most trusted French palates in Paris” new world wines got an incredible boost. This marked the change of the old wine industry. The Australians got into the game, making wine fruity, fun and – sacre bleu – even frivolous, with a range of quirky labels, from ‘Aussie Jeans Rock,’ a red from Margaret river, to ‘Pink,’ a chic bubbly by Yellow Glen.
How much have things changed? Even the French are making allowances for hip labels, which appeal to the young. (As well as wine newbies.), despite the fact that they blow the lid off the mystery of wine. ‘Fat Bastard’ for instance is one of the best selling wines in the USA.
And Spurrier? He became famous, inspiring the movie “Bottle Shock”, which he says is more fiction than fact and “very Hollywood”. Now, the makers of a movie titled, “Judgment Of Paris”, have asked for his approval. “So I told them, ‘I want my role played by a British actor’. They suggested Hugh Grant. But, I said, ‘He’s far too old’. Then, they said, ‘Jude Law?’ And, I said, ‘He’s far too beautiful’.”