Steven Spurrier – a wine legend | 1941-2021

by Charles Lea
Steven Spurrier in Barnes

Steven Spurrier at our Barnes shop for a book signing

We are very sad to hear the death today of the wine legend Steven Spurrier.

Steven’s Paris shop ‘Les Caves de la Madeleine’ was a magnet for wine enthusiasts and has proved an enduring influence on those who worked there – which sometimes feels like a whole generation of the UK wine trade. Through the ‘Académie du Vin’ courses, Steven taught English, American and even French Parisians about wine. He was responsible for the ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting, in which Californian wines were tasted blind against top French wines and triumphed, which gave Californian winemakers a new confidence and pride in what they were doing., It was a really big deal particularly in the U.S. – eventually giving rise to the a film about the occasion (‘Bottle Shock’) in which Steven was played by Alan Rickman.

Steven returned to London, and the Académie du Vin courses formed the basis for the Christie’s Wine Courses. He wrote for Decanter for many years, and even started his own vineyard, planting vines on his wife Bella’s land near their home in Dorset, now producing Bride Valley sparkling wines. He eventually wrote an autobiography, Wine, A Way of Life, this was re-published at the end of 2020 by his new publishing venture The Académie du Vin Wine Library as Steven Spurrier, A Life in Wine. For this edition a number of Caves alumni and other influential wine trade contributors each wrote something about him for the re-issued book. My own contribution was as follows:

“In some ways Steven’s presence in my life has been fleeting, and yet he had a profound influence. My interest in wine was kindled through dregs of samples left over from Académie du Vin tastings brought back to our Paris flat by George Leggatt, who told us what he could remember about them from the Académie lectures.

Gradually, through George’s stories and descriptions his work as Les Caves delivery driver (which sounded a lot more fun than the photocopying room of the lawyers’ offices on the Avenue Friedland where I spent my days), I learned about Steven, eventually meeting him. He often seemed to be on the way to a tasting, or returning from one, wearing a pale linen Tommy Nutter suit, a pink shirt and a wide Mr Fish unbleached silk tie, looking as crisp and elegant on his return as when he set out, and radiating smiles of enthusiasm. I have long tried to emulate his skill in long-distance and precision spitting, but also wondered that he went to tastings where he seemed in no danger from other ‘looser cannons’. Pursuing the kindled interest, I worked for Steven at Les Caves de la Madeleine, and learnt much about the producers who he was working with. I even saw him in his famous silk-faced kingfisher-blue velvet dinner jacket with the tight and then flared sleeves (and seven covered buttons on each).

Later, when I began to work for Graham Chidgey at Laytons, there was Steven too, involved with the Malmaison Wine Club, and Graham had also bought Les Caves de la Madeleine UK, which he put Patrick Sandeman in, to run as a standalone merchant. After Les Caves had moved, it was this site, opposite the cinema on the Fulham Road, which became the first Lea & Sandeman shop. We ended up taking on suppliers such as R&L Legras Champagne and Vincent Delaporte Sancerre in part because they were known to me from my Caves (Paris) days, but also known to our local customers from the Caves (London) shop.

As Steven’s second career of wine writing blossomed at Decanter, we began to see more of each other at press tastings or in our shop and he would occasionally send me emails suggesting that I look at this or that winery and who to contact. Surprisingly (or not) these contacts were never men – and Patrick’s first question was always ‘…and how pretty is she Steven?”

We will all miss him hugely.

Charles Lea

For more, please see Steven’s obituary in The Times.