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Steven Spurrier Dies at Age 79

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Judges' panel at the now-famous "Judgement of Paris" in 1976 Judges' panel at the now-famous "Judgement of Paris" in 1976

By Dan Clarke

Leafing through the just-arrived copy of Time Magazine, an article caught my eye.

Its author, George Taber, had titled the piece Judgement of Paris.  “This is really big,” I thought. “It’ll really help California’s wine industry.”

Steven Spurrier 2016 PicmonkeySteven Spurrier in 2016

It was May of 1976, eight years before I began my first publication about wine. At that point in my life, I was enjoying wine from California but had limited experience with the fine wines of France.

It seemed that Steven Spurrier, the proprietor of a wine shop in Paris, had arranged for a tasting of California wines. I was only vaguely aware that the title of the piece hinted at a literary reference, but I was darn sure that the former understudy to the 49ers John Brodie had not retired from football and moved to France. This Steven Spurrier was the young proprietor of Les Caves de la Madeleine, which included many British and American expatriates among its clientele. He had invited several of France’s leading wine experts to a tasting of some of California’s best Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Also included in the tasting were their Gallic analogues, top red wines from Bordeaux and white Burgundies. As Spurrier explained later, it was intended as a sort of an informal “hands across the water” gathering, but by the time the tasting came off things had evolved to a point where these invited experts—among the finest palates in the land—would taste the wines “blind” without knowing their identities and rate them in their order of preference.

To the surprise of all (and, apparently, the consternation of most of the French), the judges picked California wines as their favorites in both categories. The 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was their choice among the reds and a 1973 Chardonnay made by Chateau Montelena‘s winemaker, Mike Grgich, prevailed over some of Burgundy’s best whites.

George Taber was the only journalist in attendance and without his coverage of the tasting, little notice might have been taken of the results. As it was, his Time article led to the wine world recognizing that, to paraphrase Robert Mondavi, that California wines, if not the best in the world, deserved at least to be considered in the company of the best. In subsequent years Chateau Montelena has continued to be highly regarded for its Chardonnay, as well as for all its varietals, though their winemaker went out on his own, establishing Grgich Hills Winery with his partner, Austin Hills. Warren Winiarski continued to turn out many vintages of outstanding Cabernet before selling Stag’s Leap to a partnership of Washington’s Ste Michelle and Italy’s Piero Antinori in 2007 for $185 million.

Steven Spurrier may have been best known, at least in this country, for his role in this watershed tasting, but he enjoyed a rich life in the world of wine. He passed away Monday night. You can find out more about him in a remembrance penned by his friend and colleague, Jancis Robinson,  If you have half-an-hour to spare, you might check out Karen MacNeil’s recent video interview with him.

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