Fine wine rarely makes it into the public consciousness, but one event in 1976 has proved of perennial interest: the so-called Judgment of Paris. It heralded the arrival of wine from the New World, but also tapped into popular prejudice. Who can resist French wine snobs being made to look foolish? So these memoirs by Steven Spurrier, the man behind that notorious tasting, have been keenly anticipated.
It was a glass of 1908 Cockburns port that Spurrier tried at the age of 13 that sparked a lifelong interest in wine. Rather than go to university, as expected, he worked in the cellars of a wine merchant, Christopher’s, in Soho. In his early twenties he inherited £250,000 (the equivalent of £5 million today) when the family gravel business was sold. This financial security enabled Spurrier to spend a year working without pay in the great merchant houses of Europe, including Joseph Drouhin in Burgundy, Hugel in Alsace and Yeatman’s in Oporto. This portrait of an aristocratic trade on the verge of transformation is fascinating, and much the best part of the book.
Nowadays, Spurrier cuts a very establishment figure, but in the 1960s he found the London wine trade ‘too ‘‘old boy’’ for me’, as he puts it. The old boys looked askance at such modern ideas as having a fridge in the car. His inheritance enabled Spurrier to lead a swinging life, hosting parties, going to Annabel’s and even meeting Jimi Hendrix. There’s a splendid photo of Spurrier decked out in full Austin Powers finery on his wedding day. But for all his modern ideas, there’s more than a touch of Wallace Arnold (Craig Brown’s spoof clubbable Tory) about Spurrier’s prose. He puts the words ‘gentrification’, ‘trim’ and ‘soap opera’ in inverted commas, as though they are dreadful neologisms and naturally ‘’phone’ is always written with an apostrophe in front.
In 1970 he moved to Paris to be a tax exile and took over a wine merchant, Caves de Madeleine. Spurrier captures beautifully this now vanished world of little neighbourhood shops and bistros. But of course he couldn’t resist shaking things up a bit and so organised an event where French wine grandees would blind taste some top Californian wines against the equivalents from Bordeaux and Burgundy. According to Spurrier, there was no mischievous intent — the ‘Judgment’ was simply an attempt to demonstrate the quality of wines coming out of California. Many involved, however, were not amused when the Americans came out top; Spurrier describes being ‘physically thrown out of the Ramonet cellars by M. Ramonet’s son André for having caused such an insult to the family name’.
The Judgment chapter should be the big set piece of these memoirs, but disappointingly, rather than tell his own story, Spurrier quotes at length from an American journalist, George Taber, who was there at the time. The whole book is a bit like this; Spurrier is great with a pithy one-liner but at times maddeningly uninformative. There are far too many sentences such as ‘I have no real memories of my time at de Luze’; or ‘there is not really much to say about our time in New York, as it was a disaster from start to finish’ .
Spurrier may have a flair for self-promotion but he was a lousy businessman: ‘25 years later all the money had gone — lost, stolen or strayed’ he writes (more than once). His little Parisian empire of the shop, a wine school and various bars and restaurants collapsed in the 1980s. The second half of the book should be inspiring: he rebuilt his life by becoming a wine writer and consultant, set up the Decanter world wine awards and later planted his own vineyard in Dorset, but it all blurs into a series of extravagant lunches and tastings. It would have helped if the book had been given a much tighter edit: the many typos and repeated anecdotes make Spurrier seem — unfairly — a little dotty.
He writes after the death of his mother: ‘I’ve always been somewhat detached from my parents, as they were from me.’ This detachment runs throughout the book: reading it is like talking to an interesting chap after lunch in a gentleman’s club (Boodle’s, not Spearmint Rhino) who nevertheless remains completely unknowable.