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Steven Spurrier, Briton who helped make Calif. wines a global commodity, dies at 79

Steven Spurrier in 1980 outside his Paris wine shop. (Courtesy of L'Académie du Vin)

“The Judgment of Paris” sounds like a historical trial. In a way, it was.

It was the day — May 24, 1976 — that British wine expert and merchant Steven Spurrier lined up France’s foremost wine experts for a “blind” tasting without labels on the bottles. Traditional French Burgundy and Bordeaux vintages were sampled alongside wines from relative upstarts from California’s Napa Valley.

The outcome was considered a foregone conclusion since French wines had long been considered the best in the world and Napa Valley was best described by one American wine writer as “Podunk.” “California wine was not viewed,” Mr. Spurrier, who had a shop and wine school in Paris, later said. “California wine did not exist.”

To the shock and horror of the French wine elite, California’s Chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons were rated higher than the classic local wines. A 1973 Californian Stag’s Leap cabernet out-rated a 1970 red Bordeaux from the legendary Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. A California Chardonnay, Chateau Montelena, beat its French rival.

A reporter for Time magazine happened to bear witness to the upset, uncorking global coverage of a David vs. Goliath victory.

One of the tasters, Aubert de Villaine, called it “un coup dans la derriere pour les vins Français,” a kick in the backside for French wines. Another taster, Odette Kahn, resorted to a Trumpian argument: The tasting was rigged. It wasn’t.

From that seismic day, the California wine industry began to foster global ambitions, and its vintages are now praised and enjoyed around the globe. The bursting of the historic French bubble also led many other would-be wine-growing countries to begin competing internationally with increasing success.

After Mr. Spurrier’s Paris tasting, vineyards in Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and even Eastern European nations such as Bulgaria and Hungary grew in confidence and started exporting widely.

Mr. Spurrier encouraged them all. “At any sparsely-attended tasting of the most obscure, nascent wine region, Steven would be there,” leading British wine writer Jancis Robinson wrote in a tribute.

Mr. Spurrier died March 9 at age 79 at his home and winery in Bride Valley, England, surrounded by his beloved homegrown English vines, according to the website of his Bride Valley Vineyard. No cause was given.

In the Judgment of Paris, Mr. Spurrier was aided by a young American expatriate and oenophile, Patricia Gallagher (later Gastaud-Gallagher), who soon was hired to work in his shop and school. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that she pushed him to include American vintages every July 4, Independence Day.

“The problem was that whatever American wines were available, even from Patricia’s friends in the embassy, weren’t worth the effort,” Mr. Spurrier told the Chronicle. But she persevered in time for the U.S. Bicentennial, scouting out the premier vineyards and encouraging Mr. Spurrier to make a trip of his own for a final decision just a month before the big event.

A Napa Valley resident, Joanne Dickenson (later Joanne DePuy), got the California wines to Paris — in suitcases because of customs complications, losing one that was smashed along the way. Mr. Spurrier, once described as “a gentleman and a gentle man, the opposite of a prima donna,” always said the two American women deserved at least as much credit as he did, if not more.

At the baggage carousel in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, “I could smell the wine before I saw it,” DePuy told San Francisco Chronicle wine writer Esther Mobley in 2018. She feared all the Napa bottles had been shattered but it turned out it was only one, a Freemark Abbey cabernet sauvignon, according to Mobley.

The drama and the ultimate verdict became the basis of a 2008 movie, “Bottle Shock,” starring Alan Rickman as Mr. Spurrier, but the latter was unimpressed by the retelling of his story or Rickman’s snobbish portrayal of him. “It contained hardly a true word,” he was quoted as saying.

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Steven Hugh Walthall Spurrier was born in Cambridge, England, on Oct. 5, 1941, to a well-off family. His father was in publishing, and his mother was a journalist. He went to Rugby School in Warwickshire, one of England’s most famous boarding schools and the birthplace of the British Commonwealth’s popular sport of rugby football.

He was 13 when he first tasted wine — a 1908 vintage port or fortified wine from Portugal but popularized in Britain. After receiving a degree in economics at the London School of Economics, he got his first job as an apprentice at London’s oldest wine merchant, Christopher and Co., in 1964, with a salary of 10 pounds a week. He married his girlfriend, Bella Lawson, that same year.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two children, Christian and Kate.

With a financial windfall from the sale of a family sand and gravel company, he moved to Paris and in 1971 opened his own wine shop, La Cave de Madeleine, and later France’s first private wine school, L’Académie du Vin, next door.

He would go on to open several similar academies in countries including Canada, India and Japan. By the end of his life, he was one of the most respected and loved figures in the global wine industry — an expert, merchant, educator, writer, taster and even a winemaker in England.

For most of his career, Mr. Spurrier was a consultant editor, writer and critic for the London-based wine lifestyle print and digital magazine Decanter, for which he wrote more than 300 columns. His memoir, “A Life in Wine,” was first published in 2018 and reissued last year.

In the winter of 2008-09, Mr. Spurrier and his wife planted their first vines on the slopes around his home at Bride Valley, Dorset. Their first vintage was bottled in 2011. Because of the weather and terrain, they focused on sparkling, Champagne-like wine; Bride Valley is now considered one of England’s finest sparkling wines.

In 2016, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, Congress honored him for his key role in the American wine industry and its global exports. He wrote in his memoir that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) awarded him a document recognizing the historical importance of the Judgment of Paris for the U.S. wine industry, headquartered north of her San Francisco district.

Reflecting on the initial impulse to organize the 1976 tasting, Mr. Spurrier told Time magazine years later that he was inspired in part by his outsider status in France. “I was an Englishman in Paris, I was already a square peg in a round hole,” he said. “And these were very, very good wines. So why don’t we do something about it?”

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