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Updated: May 21, 2014 16:17 IST

California calling

Shonali Muthalaly
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Steven Spurrier Photo: R. Ravindran
The Hindu Steven Spurrier Photo: R. Ravindran

Winemaker Steven Spurrier on ‘The Judgment of Paris', and why he holds a torch for new-world wines

Paris in the mid-1970s. All wine was old world, and all labels that mattered were French. Then an Englishman came along and changed all the rules.

“I was a square peg in a round hole,” says Steven Spurrier, discussing how he became one of the wine-world's most influential voices. Spurrier is best known for ‘The Judgment of Paris' in 1976. At a time when French wine was considered supreme, he got the country's most respected palates to blind-taste Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from France and California.

The Californian wines won in every category. “It was a huge surprise. In several cases, shock. One judge was very upset and wanted her notes back!” he chuckles, adding that the French judges just assumed they had picked the French wines.

After all, even London, where Spurrier started his career, “was about old world wine: French, German, Italian…” It was the mid-1960s, Spurrier was straight out of college and enamoured with the business. “To be a wine merchant was a very respectable profession. When I told my father that's what I wanted to do, all he said was, ‘Well, if you're sure you won't drink too much'.”

However, after learning the ropes for a year, he ended up getting married and moving into a crumbling mansion in the South of France to dabble in antiques. “I inherited a lot of money from my grandfather. I could do what I want. I was a rich kid! And I liked to do romantic things — so my wife and I ended up buying a dilapidated house in Var intending to restore it.”

In the forefront

By the mid-1970s, they gave up on the house and moved to Paris, where Spurrier intended to get back into the wine trade. He bought a shop on Rue Royale and started catering to the local expatriate population. “I put an advertisement in the Herald Tribune saying ‘Your winemaker speaks English'.” It worked.

“I was in the forefront, I was lucky enough to be young, energetic,” he smiles. “I was made out to be a mover and shaker. I had long hair, flared trousers and a moustache when the wine makers in Paris wore berets and jeans. I became known as ‘The Englishman who has the wine shop.'

Spurrier says all he wanted out of the tasting was to demonstrate Californian wines had potential. “I would have liked them to come in second or fourth. It didn't occur to me that they could win.” He adds: “That was the first crack in the wall of French supremacy. It wasn't what I was after. And, it didn't please me at all. I had set out to make a statement — but this was an exaggeration of what I was trying to do.”

It certainly didn't help with fitting in. “The French were understandably very upset,” he says. Of course, the Americans were ecstatic. “In California I had become a cult hero. They should have named streets after me!” Spurrier adds thoughtfully, “In hindsight I'm very happy it turned out the way it did.” In 1950, there were 40 wineries in California. Now, there are 4,000. “It opened the world to new-world wines.”

And Spurrier? He became famous, inspiring the movie Bottle Shock, which he says is more fiction than fact and “very Hollywood”. Now, the makers of a movie titled, Judgment Of Paris, have asked for his approval. “So I told them, ‘I want my role played by a British actor'. They suggested Hugh Grant. But, I said, ‘He's far too old'. Then, they said, ‘Jude Law?' And, I said, ‘He's far too beautiful'.”

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