In memoriam: Steven Spurrier

Date: 31 March, 2021 / Author: Ben Howkins

May 1976. My diary for the week starts with having dinner with Steven and Bella in Paris at their charming apartment in Rue de la Cerisaie on May 23rd. After regaling us several delicious 1961 clarets, Steven announced that we needed a decent glass of port. He dashed downstairs with his dog, the faithful Digby, at his side, jumped on his bicycle and shot off to his splendid wine shop in the Cité Berryer, retrieved a bottle of Croft Old Particular 30-year-old tawny port and triumphantly brought it back to the apartment. Such style.

The following morning, May 24th, outside the apartment building, Steven and I bade each other farewell. We casually asked, as old friends do, what each other was doing that day, and he, in a gentle, matter-of-fact voice said: ‘Oh, I’ve got a tasting arranged. A bit worried about it. Hope it will work. I want to show the French that other people can also make wine.’

‘As any fule kno’, that tasting on May 24th 1976 turned out to be ‘The Judgement of Paris’, possibly the most game-changing tasting that the wine world has ever seen.

Steven was a born host and organizer; he ‘moved and shook’ like no one else. He breathed ideas as others breathe oxygen, with a contagious enthusiasm that ebbed and flowed globally. His whole wine career was built upon a series of innovations – of which the Judgement of Paris was just one. Many were trailblazing; some had an element of the helter skelter about them, but all of them held the dedicated purpose of furthering the enjoyment of wine through education. These endless projects were often a frustration to his bank manager – and to Bella, his wife – but they were like milk and honey to Steven. 

He would go about his adventures with a Beau Brummel elegance and steely resilience that often gave him the air of a magician. When explaining his next creative move, he would end with that contagious smile of his and, with an elegant flourish of his hand, pronounce: ‘Et voilà!

In one way, Steven’s legacy started at his wine shop ‘La Cave de La Madeleine’ in Paris all those years ago, where so many bright young things started their wine careers. It was all in a similar vein to Albert and Michel Roux’s ‘Le Gavroche’ in London, where so many bright young chefs started their careers. What magnificent 1960s game-changing wine and food champions! No wonder Steven held his memorable Decanter ‘Man of the Year’ luncheon at Le Gavroche.

In her splendid obit, Jancis Robinson MW mentioned that Steven went to ‘that sporty school, Rugby’, even though he was more Eton material. He did tell me once, slightly enigmatically, that he was ‘meant to go to Eton’, and no one was less sporty than Steven. When we were discussing what sports we now enjoyed, Steven looked aghast at the question. ‘I know,’ he said: ‘Lunching is my sport’. And so it remained.

Steven’s untimely death has left a huge gap in the hearts of so many of his friends. Over the past few days, through the many tributes I have seen and heard, one constant refrain has been of his inability to speak ill of anyone or anything. He was a gentleman; he nurtured all. A wine would always have a positive side to it. The fault, if pointed out, would be the fault of the glass, or the temperature, seldom of the wine itself. Likewise, Steven possessed a wonderful, almost innocent, trust in his fellow human beings. Whereas many wine traders were in awe of Steven, Steven was equally in awe of their achievements. It was that generosity of spirit that was so endearing about him. He cared about people, across the generations. In return, he was loved by so many.

Steven was always on trend, always looking for the latest grape variety or restaurant to support. Loyalty was always in his armoury, as was his desire to seek out the new. The Steven paradox. He used to chide me for going to the same local restaurant, pointing out that there were at least two excellent new venues nearby. Yet, he was a staunch supporter of his dining clubs and would entice all to be the same.

Bride Valley was, in a way, his most tangible pride and joy. The vineyard setting was perfect for parties. Steven was always happy to celebrate. Convivial to the last, he had recently, mischievously, pulled out a bottle of Noval 1963 from his cellar which he wished to share with David Orr and myself, knowing David’s attachment to Cockburn’s and mine to Croft. Alas, Covid-19 and his medication beat us to it, but this was very maverick, very Steven.

When we spoke during the last few weeks of his life, he always perked up when we talked about new titles or new ideas for the Académie du Vin Library, which was arguably his favourite legacy. He was delighted when my book, Sherry (2019), appeared, perhaps because this had been a forgotten wine that needed Steven’s unique care and support.

But maybe, above all, his greatest legacy lies in the fact that we all simply miss him so much. Et voilà!