Meet Steven Spurrier - the owner of an award-winning Dorset vineyard
PUBLISHED: 14:33 28 May 2019
©Thomas Skovsende +44 (0)7810 648451
Meet Steven Spurrier, the owner of an award-winning Dorset vineyard, who four decades ago hosted a legendary event that would revolutionise the world's wine scene
There's no denying that 24th May 1976 was a significant day. Exactly how significant depends on whom you ask and where their interests lie. In 2016, the US House of Representatives declared that it was 'an important day in American history'. The Napa Valley winemaker Warren Winiarski went a little further, calling it "a Copernican moment"; like when the 16th century astronomer Copernicus asserted that the Earth rotated around the Sun and not vice versa. Either way, the events that played out that Monday afternoon in the Terrace Room of the Paris Intercontinental Hotel - known now as the Judgement of Paris - would prove seismic for the wine world and for the young English man who arranged that blind taste testing, Steven Spurrier.
Steven is now in his late seventies, impeccably dressed in pink shirt and cream blazer he walks with me between rows of Chardonnay vines on his Litton Cheney estate.
"I was physically thrown out of cellars in Burgundy after that day," he recalls, with a mischievous glint in his eye. "And I mean physically manhandled out. I was a client of theirs and came to taste the vintage and buy some wines. And they shouted 'C'est vous! It's you, it's you! Get out of here!'"
It's easy to forget in 2019, when supermarket shelves are stocked with wines from Chile, South Africa and New Zealand, that this wasn't always the case. Like astronomy before Copernicus, back in the 1970s many wine connoisseurs believed the universe revolved around France; the French made the best wines, and no-one else could compete. Steven Spurrier only needed three hours and 12 good Californian Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons to turn that idea on its head.
At the time, Steven was running an independent wine school in Paris, L'Academie Du Vin, and he had become aware of the quality of wines coming out of America. "Over the years, vintners came to L'Academie bearing bottles of California wine and I was really impressed. My business partner Patricia Gallagher was born in Delaware and suggested hosting a big wine tasting event in Paris to tie in with the 200th anniversary of the American War of Independence."
So in September 1975 Patricia went to California, and came back "raving about the quality" and seven months later Steven travelled out to make the final selection. "We chose wines which were almost European in style, ones which really impressed us. The fashion in Paris in the mid 70s was for boutique wineries so all the wines I chose were from hands-on, family-run establishments."
For the Judgement of Paris to go down in history, luck had to strike twice. The first was when Steven decided to make the tasting a competition. Realising the "nine best palates in France" he had invited had barely tasted Californian wine between them and might therefore prejudge it - he proposed a blind tasting. "Pas de problème," was the reply. The second was when George Taber had nothing better to do.
George, who wrote for Time magazine, had recently taken a course at L'Academie so Patricia invited him to cover the event. He accepted, adding that if something better came up he wouldn't be able to make it. Nothing else did.
The American white wines, which were tasted first, did best. Californian Chardonnays came fourth, third and first; every single judge rated one of two of the American wines best.
Steven described the mood in the room as he read out that result as "shock but not horror." But the next round was a clear case of sour grapes.
"I'm sure the judges put into their minds 'we don't want this to happen with the reds'. If they thought they'd found a Californian wine they were marking three it out of 20. You just don't do that." Even so, Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon - made by Napa Valley's Warren Winiarski - came top.
"Odette Khan, the owner of La Revue de Vin du France, the best wine magazine in France, knew immediately what a disaster this result would be for France. She asked for her notes back. I said: 'Sorry Mme Khan, they're no longer your notes. You've agreed to take part in this, they're now my notes.' She never spoke to me again."
That's not to say that Steven necessarily realised what he'd been responsible for. "Over supper Bella - my wife - asked 'How did it go?' And I said 'Very strange. The Californian wines won in both categories.' And then we talked about something else!"
Two weeks later, George Taber's half-page article appeared in Time magazine and its impact was substantial. "The telephone rang off the hook for the winning vineyards," says Steven. "The Californians had been trying to sell their wine on the east coast - New York, Washington, Boston - but the people there were into European wines. And then that article came out!"
In France, Steven was declared 'Perfide Albion' - a treacherous English man, accused of spitting in the soup. "It wasn't just tricky for me. Every single taster who had been at that event had a tough time."
In the long run though, the Judgement of Paris has been good for Steven. Last year he marked a quarter century writing for Decanter magazine -and he was their Man of the Year in 2017. And even at the age of 77, Steven still travels the world, judging and enthusing about wine, and of course recalling that fateful Monday in May. There was even a Hollywood film about it - Bottle Shock (2008) - with Alan Rickman playing Steven Spurrier.
Since 2009 Steven, in an almost poacher-turned-gamekeeper role, has been making his own wine here in Dorset. On 30 hectares south of the A35 between Dorchester and Bridport he grows the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes which become Bride Valley sparkling wines - Blanc de Blanc, Brut Reserve, Rosé Bella (named in honour of his wife of 50 years) and released in November last year Bride Valley Dorset Crémant. This is England's first ever crémant and it was recently awarded a silver medal in the IEWA (Independent English Wine Awards).
"The chalk in this part of Dorset is exactly the same as they have in the Champagne region of France," he tells me. "I took a couple of blocks, showed them to the great wine guru Michel Bettane and asked him 'Where do you think these are from?' He said 'Easy, Champagne.' I said 'No, Dorset!' He said 'In that case you should plant a vineyard'."
As for those two Californian wines that won the Judgement of Paris, they are listed by the Smithsonian Institution as one of the 101 Objects that Made America. But for Steven it was the egalitarian legacy of his event that resonates. "It created a template whereby unknown wines of quality could be tasted blind against known wines of quality. And if the judges were of quality, then their opinions would be respected. That had never been done before."
Personally I prefer the verdict of one of the original judges, Aubert de Villaine, owner of the most famous vineyards in Burgundy. He described Steven Spurrier's Judgement of Paris as "un coup dans la derrière pour les vins Français."
Tours & Tastings
Bride Valley Vineyard are opening their new Tasting Room this summer. They are running Summer Tours & Tastings including two during English Wine Week (25 May - 2 June), on 29 & 31 May from 11.30am. Tour & Tasting events last around 90 minutes and include tasting three of their wines. Cost £12.50 per head. Book by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01308 482767. Find out more about their award-winning Dorset wines and where to buy them at bridevalleyvineyard.com.