Wine lover opened industry's borders – Winnipeg Free Press

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Opinion

The next time you drink a bottle of wine from California, Australia, Chile or pretty much anywhere other than France, you can raise a glass to Steven Spurrier. The British wine personality and merchant, who died March 9 at age 79, forever changed the way we perceive wines made beyond France’s borders.

Spurrier is best known for having arranged the groundbreaking 1976 wine tasting dubbed the Judgment of Paris, which brought together some of France’s top wine professionals for a blind tasting that pitted top French white wines from Burgundy against some of the better California Chardonnays, and saw premier reds from Bordeaux tasted against some the Golden State’s best Cabernet Sauvignons.

At the time, Spurrier was a wine merchant in Paris; he organized the tasting after a trip to California. At the time, France was the gold standard when it came to fine wine, and everyone (Spurrier included) expected the French wines to prevail.

In each of the tastings, a California wine took top honours, rocking the wine world and setting the stage for the global wine industry as we know it. American wines could no longer only be thought of as cheap plonk (although much cheap plonk still exists). Producers in all corners of the wine-producing world saw their premium bottlings had the potential to be as good or better than the old French masters.

Bella Spurrier / The Washington Post</p><p>The 1976 tasting that became known as the Judgment of Paris pitted California wine against bottles from France, with California prevailing in both the red and white wine categories.</p>

Bella Spurrier / The Washington Post

The 1976 tasting that became known as the Judgment of Paris pitted California wine against bottles from France, with California prevailing in both the red and white wine categories.

Events leading up to and surrounding the Judgment of Paris were dramatized in the (mediocre) 2008 film Bottle Shock, in which Spurrier is played by Alan Rickman. (Spurrier disliked the film, and noted the many inaccuracies in the movie’s plot.)

“I’d say the Judgment of Paris… was the turning point for New World wines and their acceptance globally,” says Janet Dorozynski, an Ottawa-based wine communicator and educator (formerly of Winnipeg) whose day job with the Government of Canada involves helping Canadian wineries export their wines and who met Spurrier on a dozen occasions. “I think by having this greater awareness of Napa and California ushered in the path for all other countries — Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South America… it blew open the door for the first time.”

Kurtis Kolt photo</p><p>Vancouver wine writer Kurtis Kolt (left) and Spurrier at the 2017 Collisioni wine trade fare in Barolo, Italy.</p>

Kurtis Kolt photo

Vancouver wine writer Kurtis Kolt (left) and Spurrier at the 2017 Collisioni wine trade fare in Barolo, Italy.

Vancouver-based wine writer, educator and consultant Kurtis Kolt (also a former Winnipegger), who met Spurrier on a few occasions, agrees. “It was an exercise that showed that humility should prevail rather than these notions we all have with what should be good or what shouldn’t. It’s happened to all of us — the Judgment of Paris was just a bit of a grander stage and upset an industry.”

Following the Judgment of Paris, Spurrier spent the next decades working as a wine consultant, judge, educator and advocate, writing and tasting for Decanter magazine and travelling the world to learn and write about wine. He was widely respected, yet retained an understated place in the world of big-name critics and wine influencers.

Dorozynski first met Spurrier 10 years ago at the Decanter World Wine Awards, which Spurrier helped found while working for Decanter; Dorozynski also helped organize an annual tasting of Canadian wines at London’s Canada House, an event Spurrier attended regularly. “He was in his 70s, but he was one of the first of the big-name trade to arrive, and he was always one of the last ones to leave,” Dorozynski recalls.

Spurrier developed a keen interest in Canadian wines, and on two occasions attended Judgment of B.C. tastings in the Okanagan Valley, which pitted B.C. wines against their global counterparts in a similar fashion to the 1976 Paris tasting. “He was impressed with what our little wine country was doing,” says Dorozynski. “It’s important to get that third-party endorsement — especially from someone like him. For him to commit and spend time to the tasting, coming to Canada, was quite a big thing.”

High Commissioner of Canada in the United Kingdom</p><p>Steven Spurrier tastes at Canada House in London at the annual showcase of Canadian wines. </p>

High Commissioner of Canada in the United Kingdom

Steven Spurrier tastes at Canada House in London at the annual showcase of Canadian wines.

Kolt also picked up on Spurrier’s enthusiasm about Canadian wines. “He said wonderful things that seemed to be heartfelt about Canadian wine and B.C. wine. Do we rely on this international acceptance too much still? Yeah. We’re not confident until we hear it from them. But you could see that he was legitimately excited about what was happening.”

After the 2015 Judgment of B.C. in the Okanagan Valley, Kolt organized a tasting of 18 B.C. sparkling wines in Vancouver before Spurrier flew home. He was nervous, but Spurrier was impressed with the bubblies.

“He was really blown away at the value — there was nothing on the table that was over $40. And as we talked the pretense melted away. It was just like hanging out with another wine geek.”

The outpouring of tribute posts on social media made it clear Spurrier was well-loved by all who knew him. Dorozynski says Rickman’s snooty portrayal of Spurrier in Bottle Shock is the opposite of the actual man. “I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of people watching (Bottle Shock), to learn about Spurrier and the Judgment of Paris; it’s unfortunate because that’s not what the real Steven Spurrier was like.

“He was so charming and genuine and interested in people, interested in wine — the antithesis of many wine communicators today where it’s all about them, their face,” Dorozynski continues. “He didn’t have any kind of shtick about him. It was really about the wine.”

Wines of the week

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2017 Chardonnay (Columbia Valley, Wash. — around $23, private wine stores)

Medium gold in colour, this Columbia Valley Chardonnay brings ripe red apple, peach and pear aromas that show well with secondary tropical fruit and vanilla notes. It’s rich, medium-bodied and viscous, with loads of tree fruit flavours working beautifully with the supporting vanilla and spice notes (from oak aging), the tropical fruit and ripe citrus flavours and the slightly warm finish. An elegant, sophisticated example of Washington Chardonnay. 4/5

Santa Julia 2018 Reserva Malbec-Cabernet Franc (Uco Valley, Argentina — $15.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)

This 70ish/30ish blend of Malbec and Cabernet Franc brings the dark berry aromas of the former grape, with some lifted tomato leaf and cocoa notes from the latter. On the chewy, full-bodied palate, the blackberry and slightly tart cherry flavours work well with the underlying herbal/savoury/slightly meaty note, the medium tannins that bring a white pepper/black tea component and subtle spice from 10 months in French oak barrels. Pour this well-priced red into a glass and let it sit for half an hour to open up, or put it away for 18-24 months. 4/5

uncorked@mts.net

Twitter: @bensigurdson

Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

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