‘A wonderful man.’ ‘Such a great optimist!’ ‘He always raised the tone at any gathering he attended.’ ‘The quintessential man of wine.’ Tributes to Steven Spurrier poured in on Tuesday 9th, the regular ping of an email landing becoming a beat to the day as yet another of his friends reached out to share their – and our – sadness that he was no longer with us.
‘He was always so kind to me,’ said Natasha Hughes MW, ‘even when I was making my early, fumbling forays into the wine world.’ And that is my experience of Steven too. As a young editor working on his Guide to French Wines (1991), he’d visit our Mitchell Beazley offices having cycled from Fulham in a stylish grey suit (collar and cuffs slightly outmoded but the pin-stripe perfectly tailored) and patiently answer my questions – was there really a wine called Ardailhou? – with neat descriptions that instantly brought the wines to life. Then, as a nervous new editor at Decanter, about to chair a formidable panel of tasters (Michael Broadbent or Serena Sutcliffe MW were surely among them), he’d be there at my side with a ‘Wouldn’t you say these tannins are showing awfully well?’ treating me as if I too was an expert in 1990 Pomerol, giving me the confidence to enjoy the ensuing discussion.
This was typical of Steven. He was empowering. He wore his immense wine knowledge lightly, shared it willingly and drew you up to his level. And what better forum for sharing could there have been than the Académie du Vin? Conceived in the room next to his shop in Paris, it is here that Steven set about imparting what he knew – the facts and flavours gleaned from his travels through Europe in a car fitted with a wine fridge in the boot – to his students, many of whom caught the wine bug permanently and have gone on to run the wine trade as we know it today.
The natural progression of his ability to illuminate and teach were his books French Country Wines (1984) and L’Académie du Vin Wine Course (1990), then a lively column in Decanter magazine – he wrote 318 in all, charting his worldwide wine discoveries. The crowing glory to this, of course, was the creation of his own publishing imprint, for which he joined forces with the dynamic Simon McMurtrie, our publisher at the Académie du Vin Library, in 2019.
There were many reasons to celebrate on the night of our Vintners’ Hall launch party – the birth of our new company, our first book published, Michael Broadbent’s 92nd birthday and (surprise!) his wedding to Valerie – and I remember so clearly Steven’s delight that it would be his sparkling wine, Bride Valley Crémant (the first Crémant made in the UK), with which we toasted these events. It was from his and Bella’s Dorset vineyard, and he was justifiably proud of it. His smile was the broadest in the room.
To work with Steven was a joy. Even the most obscure request would be met with an instant answer. Steven, who can I ask about Alsace vintages? ‘That’s easy, we’ll try Severine Schlumberger.’ And who would write for us on Sustainability in Bordeaux? ‘Let me introduce you to Mathieu Chadronnier.’ Wine in India? ‘Reva K Singh!’ What about wine and art? ‘Andrew Caillard MW is the most delightful artist, I have a copy of his Red Vine Dragonfly. And wine in popular fiction? ‘Tony Aspler! Here’s his email address.’ The fact that Steven had wine connections everywhere made piecing together In Vino Veritas, our debut anthological tribute to Cyril Ray’s Compleat Imbiber, one of the most enjoyable tasks of all. However complex the subject, however detailed, Steven always knew someone who was willing to help.
Steven paid everyone attention, from the grandest Bordeaux château-owner to the newest cellar hand. His worldwide network of loyal friends was due in no small part to the fact he would always be prepared to hop on a plane and visit them. Even in his late 70s flying long-haul to Uruguay then embarking on a visit to Budapest a week later did not faze him (he wrote about these trips for us just last year in our online publication, Vinosity), and his ability to step off a plane looking ‘smooth and unruffled’ (to quote Fiona Morrison MW’s tribute to him in A Life in Wine) never dwindled. His final Zoom interview was with the equally energetic and distinguished Karen MacNeil, just a month before he died.
It must have been after one of these journeys that we held our 10 Great Wine Families launch party in Berry Bros’ grand Napoleon Cellar. Steven was the life and soul, delighted not only by the wine royalty in attendance, great names connected by their inclusion in Fiona’s new book, but by the fact that here was a rare chance for us all to compare the greatest wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. I still have (and treasure) Steven’s copy of Stay Me With Flagons (1940) in which Maurice Healy proclaims that ‘burgundy at its best overtops Bordeaux at its best’. Steven was fascinated by this on-going rivalry but knew far better than to declare a winner. (You can find out his real thoughts if you read our 2020 anthology, On Bordeaux.)
Steven is the only person I know to have successfully embraced every aspect of wine professionally and successfully, from grape harvesting and crushing (first experienced during his stagière visits to France in the 1960s), to buying and trading in Paris in the 1970s; then teaching, judging, broadcasting and writing right into the 2020s, and finally planting his own vines, blending and making his own wine from Dorset’s Jurassic coast. He was such a generous and interesting man, full of energy, ideas and kindness: it has been a great privilege to have known him and worked with him.
I send my fond goodbye Steven, and add to it words from two of our 2021 authors. Peter Vinding-Diers: ‘In his gentle way Steven did so much for the world of wine which we all love. He was the last of the best. His spirit will still live amongst us and the inspiration he so freely gave will spur us on in future.’
And Rex Pickett: ‘I’m sure we’ll all join him in a tasting room one day. And he’ll be holding a glass of something sublime, smiling mischievously and saying: “What took you so long?”’ And when we do, I hope that he’ll be wearing his famous kingfisher-blue dinner jacket with the flared sleeves and velvet-covered buttons. Until then, I shall miss him enormously.
Susan Keevil, Editor-in-Chief, Académie du Vin Library
Watch our tribute video for Steven
Susan Keevil, Editor-in-Chief, Académie du Vin Library