Writer and wine columnist John Schreiner is Canada's most prolific author of books on wine.
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Steven Spurrier has died
Photo: Steven Spurrier at work tasting BC wines
Steven Spurrier, perhaps the most influential advocate for British Columbia wine among British wine writers, has died at 79, the victim of aggressive liver cancer.
He lent his prestige, beginning in 2015, to presiding over a series of Judgment in B.C. tastings that were organized over five years by the British Columbia Wine Institute.
As a tribute by Jancis Robinson says, this was entirely typical of his extensive interest in wines other than the French classics. “At any sparsely attended tasting of the most obscurely nascent wine region, Steven would be there,” she wrote.
“Obscurely nascent” is not a term we in British Columbia would attach to our wine industry but the truth is there are probably more consumers in Britain who have tasted Georgian wine than there are those who have tasted Canadian wine. In recent years, however, Steven helped our producers spread the word there, especially after becoming familiar with our wines through the Judgment of BC tastings. Those were blind tastings with BC wines pitted against comparable imported wines. BC wines more than held their own against the competition. The tastings are no longer held because the point has been made.
The Judgment of BC tasting was modelled on Steven’s famous 1976 tasting, The Judgment of Paris, which put California wines in the map internationally. In 1976 Spurrier was a wine merchant in Paris with some California wines in his shop. He organized a tasting and, to draw attention, decided that it would be a blind tasting. California was then a nascently obscure wine region, at least to the French. So he pitted top California wines against leading French wines.
He sold primarily French wines and he expected French wines to win the tasting. When the result was announced, one of the outraged French judges demanded her ballot back. (All but two of the 11 judges were French and the scores of the others – Steven and an American – were not counted.) You can understand why the French were outraged when an upstart like Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon beats a First Growth Bordeaux like Chateau Mouton.
The results of The Judgment of BC did not have the same shock value, if only because blind comparative tastings have become routine. But the fact that British Columbia’s wines scored well, and often won, was reassuring both to the consumers here and to the producers.
At the first such tasting, the top Syrah was a Syrah from C.C. Jentsch Cellars, an Okanagan winery that has been open just two years and was not widely known at the time.
Steven presided over these tastings – at which there were at least two dozen wine professionals as judges – with his characteristically modest mien. His wore his celebrity lightly. Jancis Robinson recounts that he told a host of a South American wine visit that it was not necessary for Steven to fly business class.
His interest in British Columbia wines was genuine, which could not always be said of all of his contemporary wine writers in Britain.