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Steven Spurrier and lightness of touch

Steven Spurrier disappeared from the wine world, and from this vale of tears, rather as he had inhabited it: unexpectedly, unsolemnly, almost lightly. I was completely taken by surprise, and taken aback, by the news of his death; I had not known he was unwell, and the last time I had seen him, at a tasting some time in January or February of last year, he had seemed his eternally ageless, Peter Pan-ish or Puckish self, beautifully dressed of course, though in a style that had become just slightly retro. He always reminded me of that famous Hockney double portrait of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (even though I don’t think he actually wore flares, at least after 1975). He was incidentally a collector of art and said recently in an interview that art was more important to him than wine.

The weight of the wine world

Steven wore everything lightly, including his exceptional knowledge of wine. Lightness is somehow always suspect, though I’ve never understood why “lightweight” should be a term of abuse. Welterweight boxing champions are just as skilful as heavyweights, but never attract the same attention.

Of course you could argue that Steven was indeed a wine heavyweight. His 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting was probably the most media-worthy wine event of the past 50 years. Who else in the wine world has been the subject of not one but two films? But as Steven himself never tired of mentioning, the inclusion of California Cabs and Chards in the famous Paris head-to-head was a last-minute, almost off-the-cuff decision.

As it happens I was living in Paris earlier in that now far-off year; I was between school and university and became a habitué of Steven’s welcoming, sympa wine shop Les Caves de la Madeleine (with L’Académie du Vin next door), where two friends were working. Les Caves was a treasure house not of lofty grands vins but of fascinating growers’ bottles sought out by Steven from regions and appellations which in those days were little known, and affordable. One, if you can believe it, was Auguste Clape’s Cornas. On Saturday lunchtimes we used to pick a selection, sometimes advised by le maître himself, and retire, with baguettes and good cheeses and charcuterie, to a beautiful, slightly shabby, high-ceilinged flat in the Île St-Louis. There were no spittoons and the latter stages could be a little rowdy. All the same, these dégustations, as we called them, were among the most memorable, educative, and purely enjoyable wine experiences of my life.

Steven was the guiding inspiration there. His blithe spirit was in some ways quite the opposite of the ponderous, pinstripe-suited, Oxbridge-and-London-club style of wine connoisseurship. Steven liked to wear suits, but they tended to be pale in color and light in fabric, unlike the Huntsman pinstripes affected by his friend, and Christie’s colleague, Michael Broadbent.

Humility and bravery

Since his death I’ve been thinking about the flair and lightness of touch he embodied as it applies both to a way of approaching wine and to wine itself. I don’t mean frivolity—that wasn’t at all Steven’s spirit—or the kind of lightness in wines that is insipidity by another name. Maybe what I’m gesturing toward is best expressed in two negative principles.
First, don’t take yourself, or wine, too seriously. That’s obviously a perilous principle, easily leading to accusations of dilettantism. It goes against the grain of so many contemporary pressures in education and employment opportunity, where students and potential employees have to write endless solemn me-centered statements of purpose. Steven took neither himself nor wine too seriously. I never remember him talking much about himself at all, and when it came to wine, which brought him fame if not always fortune, he didn’t, as we’ve seen, regard it as the most important thing in life. In my case, I love wine this side of idolatry, but I can just about imagine living without it. I couldn’t say the same about poetry, music, or even tennis (which is a bit foolish of me).

Second, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Steven Spurrier had the luxury of inheriting a sizeable fortune aged 23. He had frittered half of it away by the time he was 26. But he never dwelt on his losses. Some ventures came off, others didn’t. But right to the end of his life he continued to try new things, including planting a vineyard for sparkling wine at Bride Valley in Dorset. He suffered some setbacks early on but recent vintages have been encouraging.

Treading with a light step

So, how do these apply to wine? I offer two thoughts plucked almost at random. Grenache/Garnacha and Cinsault are two “southern” red varieties that were often rather looked down on in the past. But enlightened winegrowers in places as far apart as Rioja, South Australia, and the Cape have ushered in a renaissance of both grapes stressing lightness and perfumed elegance rather than weight. And tasting some 2013 Barolos recently (courtesy of my colleague Stephen Brook) I was struck by how the wines I liked best (Ceretto Bricco Rocche Brunate, Boroli Brunella) managed to tread with a light step, despite their considerable substance and tannic structure. So also in the ball scene of Lampedusa’s The Leopard the Prince belies his great stature with the elegance of his dancing, not unnoticed by his nephew Tancredi’s fiancée Angelica.

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