By his own admission Steven Spurrier came from a privileged background. He was by nature an adventurer whose obsession with wine started early, when he was 13, one Christmas eve at the family home, Marston Hall. For the first time he was allowed a glass of wine. “ One sip of that glorious Cockburn’s 1908 and the die was cast.” he recalled.
In 1964 he joined the wine trade, not unusual for a young man of his background though by this time he seemed to have developed a deep love of France which would have undoubtedly influenced his career choice. When he married his wife Bella, in 1968, they immediately headed to Victoria Station and took the all-first-class luxury-boat train to Paris. Having bought a ruin in the South of France they had decided to start a new life in Provence. Spurrier admitted money was never an issue as he had inherited the equivalent at today’s value of £5m. However, being young and inexperienced they soon got ripped off when they tried to rebuild their ruin. After two years they knew their life in Provence wasn’t going to work. Spurrier was determined however not to return to London. “I wasn’t going to go back with my tail between my legs,” recalled Spurrier. In the end they decided to go and live in Paris and go back into the wine trade.
One morning he found himself walking with his friend, a lawyer by profession, down Rue Royal. They came across a small wine shop called Cave de la Madeleine. Spurrier commented that a small shop like that would be his absolute dream. His friend dragged him in to have a look around. The owner, a sophisticated French lady, asked them if she could sell them something.
“Yes, my friend here would like to buy your shop.” said the lawyer. As it happens the shop was for sale and a deal was struck there and then. The lady however had second thoughts. Her husband had been a highly respected wine merchant who had recently died from cancer. She couldn’t see how a young Englishman could honour the reputation of her husband. Spurrier was determined and it was agreed he would come and work for her, for free, for six months and if she thought he could live up to her expectations then she would sell him the shop. He must have done well because at the end of six months, in 1971, he found himself the new owner of Cave de la Madeleine. Spurrier recalled how Paris was much more international in those days. All the international banks and English-speaking law firms were represented in the city and inevitable had their offices in the ‘golden triangle’ were Cave de la Madeleine was situated. Spurrier found himself with all these potential English-speaking clients which the previous owner had never thought about. Knowing that most Parisiennes drunk only inexpensive vin ordinaire, he decided the future lay with the English and American expats. He immediately placed an advert in the Herald Tribune – “Your wine merchant speaks English”. It worked. Spurrier would never sell any wine he himself would not drink and he made sure a good selection of wine was always at hand to be tasted by his English-speaking clientele. He was more than happy to talk his clients about what they were tasting. Spurriers recalled that one day, someone from IBM commented that they would love to learn more about wine if his talks were more structured. The locksmiths next door, which was on two floors, went bust and Spurrier made a bid for the building at the bankruptcy auction. There he founded the Academy du Vin! This turned out to be why the the ‘Judgment of Paris’ occurred at all.
An American lady by the name of Patricia Gallagher who came to help Spurrier at the academy suggested they should bring some Californian wines to be introduced at the academy. Spurrier had never tasted Californian wine but after she brought over a few samples he was impressed by the quality and agreed they should bring over the best of Californian wines simply as an introduction to these wines. Spurrier invited the some of the most influential French tasters on the basis that it was the 1976 was the bicentennial of the American war of independence . After having sent the invitations and received acceptance, Spurrier was worried the Californian wines would be tasted and simply considered simply good and the whole thing would go off like a damp squib. thought it would be interesting to compare these with the best of France. This would provide some sort of benchmark to allow the Californian wines to be placed, in the mind of the tasters, at their merited level . Nobody objected that the tasting was now to be blind, and they would be pitting Californian against French. The results they assumed would be a foregone conclusion!
When the big day arrive whites would be tasted first. Order of service would be random. All whites would be Chardonnays and the results would be announced before tasting the reds which were all based on Cabernet Sauvignon. When the white results came in it caused consternation. Many of the tasters decided it wouldn’t happen with the reds. They would be on their guard!
1. Chateau Montelena 1973
2. Meursault Charmes Roulot 1973
3. Chalone Vineyard 1974
4. Spring Mountain Vineyard 1973
5. Beaune Clos de la Mouches Joseph Drouhin 1973
6. Freemark Abbey Winery 1972
7. Batard – Montrachet Ramonet- Prudhon 1973
8. Puligny- Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive 1972
9. Veedecrest Vineyards 1972
10. David Bruce Winery 1973
1. Stags Leap Wine Cellars 1973
2. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970
3. Chateau Montrose 1970
4. Chateau Haut Brion 1970
5. Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
6. Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971
7. Heitz Wine Cellars 1970
8. Clos du Val Winery 1972
9. Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
10. Freemark Abbey Winery 1969
George Taber, the only reporter there got the scoop of a lifetime. California wines had arrived. The Californian wineries above have since become cult wineries able to charge astronomical prices. The French tasters, when they went back to Burgundy and Bordeaux, got accused of having betrayed France. Their beloved Mouton Rothschild having been beaten into second place by an upstart!