Book Review: Steven Spurrier: A Life in Wine, by Steven Spurrier

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-31-2021

A second subtitle to Steven Spurrier’s memoirs could easily have been “O, the decadence!” His life seems to have been one long, exuberant dinner party featuring the best bottles of wine, the best food, and a who’s who of wine. It’s an absolute pleasure to read about and to live vicariously through, but I’ll admit I was left wishing for a fuller picture of the man himself.

Spurrier, who passed away last year at the age of 79, is best known as the man behind the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, also known as the Judgment of Paris. I’d never heard of it, or Spurrier, until I saw the movie Bottleshock. Alan Rickman plays Spurrier, portraying him as stern and somewhat pensive. But the man on the pages of A Life in Wine has more of an endearing roll-with-the-punches attitude, and certainly more joie de vie.

Spurrier was born in Cambridge, England, in 1941. At the age of 13, he shared a glass of port (Cockburn 1908) with his grandfather, which inspired him to pursue a career in wine. “It was probably the wine trade that saved me from an early demise,” says Spurrier. “For although I never minded losing my inhibitions socially, relying on charm to smooth over the consequences, I soon realized that I could not do this professionally.”

He got his start at Christopher’s, one of the “big three” wine merchants at the time, which afforded him opportunities to travel, even working in the cellars in Burgundy and Champagne. At the age of 23, two very important things happened to him: He met his future wife, Bella, and he inherited more than £5 million (in today’s dollars, which is about $6.7 million) from the sale of the family gravel business.

But just a few years later Spurrier notes, “my large inheritance began to slip through my fingers. The decisions were all mine, but I always expected the results to be better than they were.” I’m sorry to say (because there are so many wonderfully interesting and positive aspects of this man’s life) that his financial ebbs and flows are what captured most of my attention. A twenty-something who inherits such wealth should be set for life! Unfortunately, as Spurrier admits, “I was an easy target for adventurers who needed backing for a nightclub or for making a movie, and since they all seemed like good ideas at the time and were proposed by friends, it was both tempting and flattering to go along with them.”

To his credit, as A Life in Wine bears out, Spurrier was nothing if not a loyal friend.

Beyond his financial mismanagement, there isn’t much else in the book about his personal failings. His vices. His fears. His marital and parental struggles. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to expect the memoirs to go beyond their explicitly stated scope (i.e., A Life in Wine), but I would’ve liked to have seen more of the raw details that make up, well, all of our lives.

Spurrier gives ample space for his famous Academie du Vin and the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting. I learned a great deal about that historic event that I hadn’t known. He also shares the story of how he came to be making world class wine in England.

I won’t chart the full course of his life (you’ll have to read the book), but I will say that it’s a whirlwind of wine and global travel. To read it is compelling. To have lived it… well, that’s something to envy!

My recommendation
Steven Spurrier is a classic. He’s so endearing and he lived life with such gratitude and an open hand–something I certainly admire and aspire to. If you’re a fan of biographies, or just interested to learn more about this icon of the wine world, A Life in Wine is a terrific read. Enter the discount code TERROIRIST5 for $5 off your purchase of the book.

Comments are closed.