The Wine Legend: Steven Spurrier wouldn’t rest on his laurels and never stopped being curious

Wine expert and merchant Steven Spurrier passed on this week and the loss to the industry is insurmountable.

Steven Spurrier
Steven Spurrier

The year was 1976. Steven Spurrier was a young English wine merchant in Paris and decided upon a crazy idea. He travelled to the United States and connected with what were considered some of the top winemakers that side of the pond. He brought their prized wines back and organised a blind tasting comprising an eminent (largely French) jury where he pitted these finds against the top French Bordeaux-both reds and whites. The results of the tasting changed the wine industry forever. Americans won and, for the first time, the world sat up and took notice of wines that were not just French. To this day, I am sure many a French critic can be heard mumbling under his/her breath about the exercise and its impact.

And that is how influential Spurrier was and remained several decades later. He wasn’t an MW, or MS. He didn’t need titles. And somewhere that allowed him to maintain his child-like curiosity about wines right till the end. He wasn’t one of those wine critics who taste a wine only to criticise it and complain about how the berries were picked a day too early or that the oak was a touch too toasty. Instead, he valorised them. He found a way to connect the wine to a mood or sentiment, to the essence of an occasion, thereby finding its right place in the world. To him, not all wines were good, but if a wine was free from technical flaws, he would always make the time to see that it merited its rightful place on the shelf.

Spurrier had a peculiar interest in the wines of India. The first time he mentioned Grover’s La Reserve as a wine to watch out for, he put India on the wine map and brought considerable recognition for our nascent industry. He remained a constant force for our scene, visiting regions, tasting vintages, always encouraging and positive, finding ways to assist the industry and move it forward.

That same gentle nature carried forth when he interacted with wine lovers. I remember my first year as a judge at Decanter World Wine Awards, which Spurrier chaired for the longest time. My apprehensions about being expected to taste and judge alongside the best palates in the business already had my stomach in knots. And then along came this gentleman on his bicycle. He parked it and dusted a few creases off his jacket as he walked into the venue. He was immediately accosted by the organisers who wanted his attention for a million things. He attended to all with a sense of calm that was infectious even from a distance. A few minutes later, at the coffee counter, he spoke to me, welcoming me, asking me about the weather back home and, in many ways, disarming me in the gentlest way possible. Never once did I feel the intimidation that should normally come with the premise of talking wine with the most important wine personality alive! And from that point on, every meeting went like that. He complimented me on my energy when I helped with running a wine auction for his Wine Society in Mumbai, and once he even taught me how to fold my suits when travelling, so that they don’t crease too heavily. Wine always anointed these meetings, but never once did he let his gravitas on the subject and in the field over-ride the buoyant pleasures of the moment.

The late Kapil Sekhri of Fratelli Wines even managed to engage Spurrier’s curiosity and interest to the point that the man himself came down and worked with Fratelli’s chief winemaker Piero Masi to develop a special label for the Indian market. Trying the M/S range of wines is like having a conversation with Spurrier. It disarms you. Whether you are a wine imbiber or not, it speaks to you. They were made with that very intent of making quality wines in India at an accessible price and in packaging that wouldn’t confuse the consumer. Between Sekhri, Masi and Spurrier, they achieved this in every sense and the Indian wine shelf stands positively reinforced thanks to their efforts and experience.

Spurrier passed on this week and the loss to the industry is insurmountable. Given that we lost Sekhri a few months ago (something I still grapple with to believe), I intend to open a bottle to honour them both. Maybe the Fratelli M/S rosé, as it would be the most fitting tribute to Sekhri, and also to Spurrier, a legend of a man who wouldn’t rest on his laurels and never stopped being curious. RIP.

The writer is a sommelier

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First published on: 14-03-2021 at 04:00 IST