In Episode 21, we sit down with one of the wine industry’s most storied and accomplished figures, Steven Spurrier, perhaps best known for organizing the 1976 Paris Testing that helped catapult Napa Valley onto the world wine stage.
STEVEN SPURRIER -A LIFE IN WINE
The Memoirs of Steven Spurrier
The incidents, adventures, ideas, and discoveries that have formed Steven’s remarkable wine journey. This memoir looks back on Steven’s life charting the incidents, adventures, ideas, and discoveries that formed his wine journey. Along the way, he has been privileged not only to taste the finest wines but to judge them and to work with the winemakers who create them. His famously-egalitarian acceptance of everything from the obscurest Okanagan Chardonnay to the frailest 1806 Lafite, combined with his gentlemanly elegance and dry wit, led not only to his being forgiven by the Bordelais but to his enormous popularity the world over. Here, he tells his story.
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0:00:00.0 Steven Spurrier: My name’s Steven Spurrier and I’ve been in the wine business for 55 years. Basically, I’m a wine communicator, and I think what we’re going to talk about this evening is the last roll of the Spurrier dice, which is Bride Valley Vineyards, in South Dorset.
0:00:20.8 Christian Oggenfuss: Excellent. Yeah, we’re very excited to talk about Bride Valley and your project there. I do have a couple of questions leading up to talking about Bride Valley. I know our listeners would be interested in knowing how your journey in the wine trade began. I know you hold a degree from the prestigious London School of Economics. How did you transition into the wine trade after university?
0:00:42.0 SS: I was a wine merchant in Paris, Caves de la Madeleine and L’Académie du Vin. Well, L’Académie du Vin was a great wine school. And in Paris I expanded part of my comfort zone into restaurants and warehouses. And it all went wrong. And so I came back to the UK with my family to educate the children, well, bring up the children, in England in 1982. I decided I wouldn’t employ anybody ever again. So that meant I turned myself into a wine consultant, writer, observer, and I joined Decanter in, I think, September 1993. Even though I came back with my family in ’82, I was commuting to Paris until ’89, and it all went under in 1989. And then I was, for six months, head of Harrods’ wine department, which put me very much back in the center of the London wine trade. And I fell out with Mr. Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, because I became too popular. Anyway, that ended.
0:02:04.8 SS: Then I was taken on as a consultant by Singapore Airlines along with Michael Hill Smith, Australia’s first Master of Wine, and Anthony Dias Blue, who of course you know about. And that really was a bit of a savior because that gave me, A, an international job of high profile, and also quite a substantial income. And then I joined Decanter in, I think, September ’93 and stayed with Decanter until May this year. A whole chapter in my book is called Life With Decanter. Once you turn yourself into a jobbing journalist or a traveling journalist, who’s ready to go anywhere, taste anything, and I was very high profile. I was recognized as a very good taster. I really got around the world and could make quite a impression by writing about it all in Decanter.
0:03:09.3 SS: And so my bid, to get back to Bride Valley, my wife Bella bought… We bought a lovely village house in 1987, but there wasn’t enough land for her, because she needed more land for her horses. There was a farm coming up next door, a 200-acre farm. She acquired that as well, and I discovered walking around the farm, they had an enormous amount of chalk on it. And I was still, ’87, in Paris at the time, running L’Académie du Vin. I put a couple of blocks of chalk in my bucket and put them on the desk in Paris, in front of Michel Bettane and said, asked Michel, “Michel, where do you think those are from?” And he said, “Well, Champagne, of course.” And I said, “No, they’re from South Dorset.” And he said, “In that case you should plant a vineyard.” [chuckle] That was in ’87, and I didn’t plant a vineyard, but it did put the idea in my mind.
0:04:20.8 CO: And undertaking, were you the first to plant a vineyard in Southern England with the idea to make sparkling wine?
0:04:28.0 SS: I didn’t plant… I didn’t plant until 2009 because, basically, English sparkling wine, which is what we’re talking about, although the vineyards now are being very successful making still wine, English sparkling wine was unheard of. In England we had the hybrids like Madeleine Angevine and basically German grape varieties, and no one was making sparkling wine, until Nyetimber came along, Sandy Moss from Chicago. And I remember going to… This was… Really most important going to the awards ceremony of the International Wine & Spirit Competition and being handed a glass of sparkling wine and asked what it was. And I said, “Well, champagne of course. Certainly a Blanc de Blancs. Probably a Grand Cru. Why?”
0:05:24.0 SS: Nyetimber, Nyetimber 1989. This was in ’96. And so that started the whole ball. That put the whole ball in play. After Nyetimber, there was Ridgeview, and so on and so forth. By the late ’90s there was quite a buzz around English sparkling wine. The more I walked around the farm, which faces due south towards the sea, and it’s a very steep slope. It’s in a big bowl, I could really feel the lower parts of the slope were suitable for a vineyard. And in 2007, I put a dossier together to show to the Boisset family, who I knew very well and they’re very big in Crémant de Bourgogne and they are in Varichon et Clerc and Savoie. Anyway, they were mad about the idea, and hey wanted to do a joint venture with about 30 hectares on the 200… On the 70-hectare farm and build a winery and so on and so forth.
0:06:32.4 SS: But after endless research it became plain that really only 10 to 12 hectares were absolutely suitable for planting. So they said, okay, you and Bella, your wife, you plant those 10, 12 hectares. You get the vines from Pepinieres Guillaume, who, as you might know, supply the Romilly [0:07:00.1] ____ and Domaine Leflaive and Bollinger and Roederer. They’re the greatest vine nursery in France. They said, you take the grapes to Ian Edwards of Furleigh Estate, it’s only half an hour away, who was English winemaker of the year 2012, and if all goes well, we’ll buy your wine. So off we went, first planting in 2009, a tiny bit in 2010, ’11, ’12 and ’13. So we wrapped it up in ’13 with just a fraction over 10 hectares with 55% chardonnay, 25% pinot noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. So that’s the background.
0:07:46.7 SS: And the Meunier hasn’t behaved very well, we’re ripping a bit out, we’re planting a bit more, but the first vintage was tiny, just a few hundred bottles in 2011, which was luckily my 70th birthday, so that was a great slap on the back. 2012 we were rained off, as was Nyetimber, as were many vineyards in the south of England. ’13, suffered young vines and the rain from the previous year, ’14 was a super vintage, but then ’15, ’16 and ’17 were very small, and frankly, before the ’18 vintage, we were looking at under, well under a third of a bottle a vine, and I had done all my calculations on one bottle a vine, so I wasn’t feeling very happy.
0:08:39.6 SS: And then ’18 comes along, which was a Mediterranean vintage in southern England, and we made almost one-and-a-half bottles a vine. We even made some still pinot noir, which is damn good. And we made some still chardonnay, of course. And ’19 was another quite big vintage, not quite as good in quality, and ’20 was a very small vintage, but we’re back on track at Bright Valley, and we’ve opened a tasting room in the stable block behind the house. I’ve created a wine and art room with all my collection of wine paintings and artifacts and we’ve launched what’s called the Bride Valley Club to try and get members across the country, and we’re already got 40 or 50 members, and they get a discount of 15%. All the wineries are creating clubs, because they want to get direct to the public if they possibly can.
0:09:44.5 SS: So that’s the background on, say, the production side and the quality. We have very chalky soil, we have marvelous natural acidity, just super natural acidity, which can be a little green first off, but I think it’s really what you want. And in fact, Christian, I was at a conference called Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines two years ago in Chouilly, Grand Cru in Champagne, and I showed my Blanc de Blancs 2014 to the owner of the Grand Cru, and he said, “Mr. Spurrier, you’ve got what we’ve lost, acidity.” And global warming in Champagne, I think they’re handling it very well. They’ve never made better wine in Champagne than they’re making now. But we have natural acidity.
0:10:42.1 CO: It sounds like a marvelous project, and I’ve tried some of the wines and they are absolutely fantastic and available here in the US as well.
0:10:49.3 SS: I mean, what’s marvelous, I mean we’re having to re-plant Pinot Meunier because we’re short on it. But we created a Crémant, we’re the only Crémant in England, and as you know, Crémant is up to four bars of fizz as opposed to six for a fully sparkling wine, and that was because the ’15 vintage was so damn cold and high in acidity, we picked at just seven degrees alcohol and you can [0:11:18.8] ____ but it’s pretty over the top, and 12.5 acidity. So we made a tiny bit of rosé, but we couldn’t make our normal Brut Reserve and Blanc de Blancs, just because the wins were too damned acidic. And so I asked Ian Edwards, the winemaker, for his [0:11:40.0] ____. I said, “Well, what do we do?” He said, “Well, you wait until 2016 and you make a blend, that’s what they do in Champagne.”
0:11:50.9 SS: And so we waited until 2016, which was about 8.2 degrees natural alcohol and 9.5 acidity, and the blend was good, the blend was okay, but it was still very aggressive on the attack, and I knew, because we have to sell our wines quite young, I didn’t want that because if a wine is aggressive when it comes into the mouth, it’s going to leave that aggression with you the whole damn time. So I asked Ian whether he could make a Crémant. He said, “Well, of course I can.” And the fact that the Crémant has less fizz, it creams, this is… The French word crémant means creamy. It actually almost creams across the palate as it comes in on the attack, and of course then it has the wonderful Granny Smith acidity, and all the Bride Valley fruit, so we made the first Crémant in England, none of my colleagues have copied me, I can’t think why. Well, I can think why. And it’s our biggest seller. It goes wonderfully by the glass in restaurants, and it’s a unique wine.
0:13:06.2 CO: Was this a one-off or is this going to be a continuing style that Bride Valley produces?
0:13:12.2 SS: It’s kept the Bride Valley style. I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m sure… I know Wiston very well and [0:13:21.5] ____. Well, I mean big, big, big, big producers like Ridgeview will have many, many, many different cuvées. We tend to just make vintage wine, so in 2018, we’ve got our rosé, which we make in a saignée process, and we take the best pinot noir grapes to Ian Edwards and he presses them very, very, very, very slowly to draw off the juice, which is darker in color and actually fuller in flavor than a straight rosé, and then we’ve cut that with probably 45% chardonnay, and it’s very successful. So that’s called Rosé Bella, named after my wife.
0:14:03.0 SS: We have the Crémant, which is our biggest volume, and we have Brut Reserve, which I have now converted since 2018 into a 65% pinot noir-35% chardonnay blend. I’m really happy with it because the pinot noir does bring a bit of weight, but we don’t lose the elegance. And then of course, we have the Blanc de Blancs, which is our benchmark calling card, because it’s the wine which so perfectly expresses the chalky soil and cool climate. So that’s the range of the four sparklers, and in 2018, as I said, we managed to make a really nice pinot noir. For pinot lovers, they really like it. I can’t say it’s cheap, it’s £20 on the shelves, and you can get damn good pinot noir for £12, but as Dorset pinot noir, it’s very expressive, damned good wine, and we made chardonnay in 2018.
0:15:10.5 CO: And do you think that will be a continuing theme to create still wines along with the sparkling wines?
0:15:15.8 SS: In the English press, and a lot of course on export, because I don’t think these wines really have a market in the export market at all, the English still wines are becoming very much talked about. Of course, the biggest planted white grape is Bacchus, and I really like Bacchus because it’s soft and charming and floral and summery, but the chardonnay, our chardonnay, Hugh Johnson said if he didn’t know it was from South Dorset, he’d put it straight into Montagny. I think we’re probably at 15%, 10-15% still wine. I think the English market will probably try and move to about 15-20% still wine because… Well, they’re very expressive, and quite frankly, they’re easier to sell.
0:16:14.9 SS: People drink still wine every day. They buy a bottle of Dorset Bride Valley chardonnay, put it in the fridge and they drink it, whereas the sparkling wines they have to wait for special occasions, so we’re very keen with the age of the vines, now the vineyard is reaching past its 10th year, we’re very keen to see what quality can come out of still. And of course, we can’t make a decision at the last minute, because if you pick for still, you do different things to it than if you pick for sparkling. But this year, even though it was a very, very small crop, we probably made 20% through chardonnay.
0:17:00.5 CO: What an amazing story Bride Valley is. Would you have ever imagined when you started your career in wine that you would one day end up not only being a vintner, but being a vintner in the UK?
0:17:12.8 SS: Well, I certainly could not have ever imagined that I’d end up living down in Dorset and planting a vineyard. I’m certainly not a vintner. We don’t have a winery and I intervene at the blending and the dosage and that. So I’m hands off. I know nothing. I’m just a taster. So I’m a producer, I’m a grape producer, but the brand Bride Valley is working very well, and it’s all part of the house package. We’ve got a lovely… This is an early 19th century house, late Georgian, and the stable block has converted just wonderfully into a tasting room and wine and art room.
0:18:04.9 SS: I said we’d formed the wine club, so we’re going to create a club room, and then in the back behind the stable block, we’ve got all the water coming off our farm runs over a lovely waterfall, and I’ve got a sculpture collection with half a dozen really quite impressive sculptures. And Bride Valley is very much wine and art, and I think, and my two children agree, we’ve created a package. As Philippine de Rothschild said, “Making wine’s easy. It’s the first 150 years that are difficult.” And so we had a sheep farm and my wife… Where the vines, there are some sheep because she rents out a lot of the farm, but the sheep lost a lot of money.
0:19:00.0 SS: And I got fed up with financing those bloody things, so my aim was to turn a loss-making sheep farm into a profit-making vineyard. I think when the chips are down on, it’ll certainly wash its face. I’m really looking at a… We’re trying to sell as much direct as we can, and we’re getting a lot of success with that. I’d like to think of a 5% return, but it’s just created something out of nothing, and I can’t tell you, Christian, how satisfying it is to have done that, and, luckily, there was enough financial family to finance it. So we’ve not borrowed from the bank, it’s just that we’ve created something, we’ve added a vineyard to what was a very nice estate anyway.
0:19:51.5 CO: Congratulations, and I encourage our listeners to go out and try Bride Valley, enjoy Bride Valley, English sparkling wines are phenomenal, and like you said, the acidity is always so refreshing. And for those of you who want to know more about Steven’s journey in wine, I recommend you seek out the book Steven Spurrier: A Life in Wine, available through the Académie du Vin Library, which is another one of your projects as well, and we’ve talked about it.
0:20:18.4 SS: That is… I mean, towards the end of my life, I’m 80 this year, to have seen Bride Valley come into its tenth year of production is very satisfying, but to have created with Simon McMurtrie and Hugh Johnson the Académie du Vin Library, that’s an immense satisfaction, because I was complaining to Hugh about two years ago over lunch that bookshops didn’t sell wine books any more. And if they did, they are reference books or they were hard to buy books, and the literature of wine had been lost. And so a lot of what we’re doing at Académie du Vin Library is recreating the literature of wine. We’ve just republished Hugh Johnson’s The Story of Wine, which has been out of print for 20 years.
0:21:10.5 SS: We’ve written a book on Bordeaux, and we’re actually in the process of creating [0:21:15.2] ____ California, which will be very good, and that is really most exciting, because it’s something which will go on into the next generation. And we don’t… We’re a library, and we don’t intend our books to go out of print. And well, my memoirs go out of print, because memoirs do, but I think we’re publishing four books a year. Within five or six years, there’ll be maybe 20 books in the Académie du Vin Library, and that’s a lot for people to choose from. I’m very, very proud of that. It will be a wonderful legacy.
0:21:53.1 CO: It is, they are amazing books. And thank you for taking on that challenge to bring back these publications to wine connoisseurs and to the public. Well, Steven, thank you so much for your time today. Congratulations on all your successes.
0:22:05.5 SS: Well, not at all, Christian, it’s always nice to talk to you, and I think communication is all.
0:22:12.0 CO: It is, it is.
0:22:13.0 SS: I’ve often been asked how I would sum up my life in wine, and it’s as a communicator. Of course, not right away, not when I was just learning. But as soon as… I mean, L’Académie du Vin, I wanted to call it L’Ambassade du Vin, because I thought of myself as a wine ambassador, and L’Ambassade du Vin was taken, so luckily I called it L’Académie du Vin, which is much smarter. But communication is all, and that’s the business that you’re in, and you’re damned good at it, so very nice to talk to somebody who’s on the wavelength.
0:22:52.8 CO: Thank you, that’s an immense compliment coming from you, and you have done so much for the world of wine in your career, and we are grateful for it, and grateful for your time today and look forward to raising a glass of Bride Valley to you this evening.
0:23:05.9 SS: Yes, we’ll have all the Bride Valley at 2018 in America in late summer.
0:23:12.1 CO: Great.