Interview with Steven Spurrier Consultant Editor of Decanter Magazine.
The interview was conducted at the Wolsley Restaurant Picadilly,London on Tuesday the 2nd of March, 2010.
After an exchange of pleasantries, the interview commences with Steven describing his current activities on the wine tasting panel for Singapore Airlines. Steven describes how he has just returned from Singapore where he stayed at the Ritz Carlton Hotel (with which he was rather impressed for its spacious and airy feeling).
“I am the responsible panel member for European wines along with Australian MW Michael Hillsmith and Korean born Jeanne Cho Lee MW, who is an international wine judge as well as a regular contributor to renowned wine publications such as Decanter, Wine Spectator and Revue du Vin .
We tasted 150 wines a day over 4 days; we have chosen a good Cru Bourgeois for Business Class. We have just started with an Argentinean Malbec and some excellent Chablis and Pouilly Fusee”.
What about the food side? Who designs the Menus for Singapore Airlines?
There are seven Chefs who are on the Culinary Panel Consult Singapore Airlines on food including Gordon Ramsay and Georges Blanc. they make recommendations and design the menus in Business Class and First Class.
OK,.. so who else is on the Panel please?
Matthew Moran (Australia), Sam Leong (Singapore), Gordon Ramsay (UK), Zhu Jun (China), Alfred Portale (USA), Yoshihiro Murata (Japan) and Sanjeev Kapoor (India).
What are the specific requirements for selecting wine which is to be consumed for an aircraft flying at an altitude of 30000 feet?
Tannins are more marked in thin air. Anything sharp or bitter is more accentuated so we don’t select overly tannic or overly acidic wines.
How do the flavor characteristics compare on the ground or in the air?
Even the best airline can’t decant wines and give the wine the attention that you would at home. The temperature of service is well handled and Singapore Airlines uses real glasses but clearly allowing the wines to breathe,.. is one of the difficulties of serving wine in the air.
Have you compared the flavor of wines at home or in the air?
The wines don’t change as much as people would imagine. The basic flavor profile remains intact but what is different is that people are not generally as relaxed as they might be at home,.. and consequently their impressions of the wine may be differ.
Presumably the tannins and the acids are also affected by the air conditioning in the cabin of the aircraft?
Yes, in an air-conditioned atmosphere as mentioned the tannins and the acids are accentuated, for example, a lovely dry Muscadet as tasted on the ground in hot and humid Singapore, could taste quite different in the air,.. due to the air conditioning and altitude, and interestingly we have selected a new champagne the name of which I cannot disclose but Singapore Airlines needs 15000 cases and for the first time in many years which is a sign of the times we received 60 samples including from Champagne Roederer, Bollinger, Champagne Taitinger. This shows how the economic crisis has affected champagne as they all want to be on Singapore Airlines.
Previously most Champagne Houses were not interested in allocating such a vast quantity of stock to one customer. Of course, the publicity and marketing kudos that they derive is enormous. It affects the brand’s prestige very favorably to be selected for Singapore Airlines.
And so we come to the discussion of the film “Bottleshock” which is a 2008 Hollywood made film that ostensibly recounts the events that led up to the “Judgment of Paris” when Californian wines beat French wines in a “blind tasting’’ organized by expatriate wine trader and proprietor of L’Acadamie de Vins, one Steven Spurrier.
The Tasting took place in Paris on 24 May 1976.
Rough Film Plot: Sommelier and wine shop owner Steven Spurrier, a British expatriate living in Paris, concocts a plan to hold a “blind tasting test” to introduce French wine experts to the quality of wines coming from other countries, namely California . He travels to the not yet famous Napa Valley in search of contestants for his Judgment of Paris tasting, where a chance meeting introduces him to floundering vintner Jim Barret of Chateau Montelana. Barret wants no part in the competition, believing it is all a “set up” designed by the French to humiliate New World wine producers. However Barret’s son Bo secretly passes Spurrier a couple of bottles of the Chateau Montelana Chardonnay for the competition. The Chardonnay however has turned brown in the bottles, causing Barrett senior to call for the whole vintage to be carted away for dumping!
But Bo discovers the brown colour is only temporary(what a laugh!Ed.) and manages to recover the vintage with the help of a local bar owner, who had intercepted the bottles on the way to the dump. Bo is then asked to travel to Paris to represent the NapaValley vintners in the wine contest. After tallying the scores from the eight Parisian judges, Spurrier is shocked to find that Chateau Monetlana has won the chardonnay competition.
The report is famouslyfeatured in an article of Time Magazine and restaurants all around America are asked continuously for the wine (Chateau Montelana 1973) and admit they don’t have it.
This “twist of fate and the resultant oenological epiphany” forever changes the fortunes of Napa Valley wineries, and the global wine industry as a whole as it is revealed that French wines are in fact not unbeatable, prompting vintners worldwide to attempt fine wine production.
As a result a bottle of Chateau Montelana Chardonnay 1973 and the red wine Stags Leap, also from California that had won the same competition in the red wine category, were given a special Cabinet at the Smithsonian Institiute.
In 2006, thirty years after the first competition Steven Spurrier hosted another contest, this time with the full confidence that French wine would win-but California won again again on a tally of Points !
**Steven Spurriers explanation of events and refutation of the misrepresented facts, surrounding the film version of the “Judgment of Paris” and his portrayal in the Hollywood film “Bottleshock” recounted to the Editor of Connoisseur Magazine, Axel Ritenis.
“In 1973 I founded L’Academie du Vin I had already had a wine shop previously off Place de Madeline in Paris, and whilst I was running the wine shop many Californian wine producers visiting Paris would call into my shop, to talk wine and some would bring me a sample bottle.
By the summer of 1975 I realized that there were some good wines coming out of California, I told my partner Patricia Gallagher, and she took a vacation in California. She came back very enthusiastic in October 1975 and after discussions we decided to hold a tasting for the Press, just to show what is happening. The planned date of the tasting was to be may 1976 and I went to California to familiarize myself with the winemaking and the developments in the region, first hand, and of course to select wines to make the final selection of the wines sourced from Boutique wineries not the large concerns like Mondavi. I chose 6 Chardonnays and 6 Cabernets, and it just so happened that I met someone heading a group tour of Americans on a “wine and tennis tour” of France. As this would facilitate the delivery of the competition wines to Paris. The plan was that they would “hand carry” the wines, all 24 bottles (two of each wine selected – 6 white and 6 red) and on landing in Paris at Charles de Gaulle, they would get the wine through French Customs without exceeding he French customs allowance (which restricted the amount of wine that any one person could bring into Frane to 1.5 liters) and they would be duly delivered to me.
In respect to the event now called “Judgment of Paris”- One of the judges was Aubert de Villain from Romanee de Conti). To my knowledge none of the judges had previously tasted Californian wine nor hot climate wines. Only one week before the actual tasting (of the event now known as the Judgment of Paris) in order to get a fair assessment of these wines,.. I came to the realization that I would have to do a blind tasting.
Clearly I had to change the rules a bit and to ensure an impartial evaluation of the Californian wines I decided I would put in some French wines,.. and served all of the wines in masked bottles ….in other words it was a blind tasting.
I had never set out to achieve predetermined results,.. and no one was more surprised than I when the Californian wines scored higher rankings in the event than the Frenc!. It certainly was not organized as a stunt,.. just to draw attention to Californian wine. When Chateau Montelana Chardonnay won the white wines category I was very surprised,.. as we had included some top white Burgundies in the tasting.
My aim was merely to alert the invited French winemakers to the developments in California and the excellence of the wines.
It just so happened that George Tabor journalist with the American Time Magazine (he was the only journalist to cover the tasting and he also appears or is characterized in the film) wrote a story about the tasting called “The Judgment of Paris” in which the Californian wines had bested the French.
This was the first crack in the wall of French domination and went on to have some positive effects and far reaching consequences for the International Wine Industry and also resulted in such luminaries of the French wine establishment such as Philippe de Rothschild visiting California to investigate the success of Californian wine technology.
It is fair to say one of the direct results was the partnership between California’s Robert Mondavi and the Rothschilds with Opus One.
Of course there are many inaccuracies and things wrong with the film and the portrayal of me in the film. The film only mentioned the white wine the chardonnay Chateau Montelana, however in the red wine category of the tasting Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon won the competition against wines such as Chateau Rothschild and Chateau Haut Brion!
These wines were not even mentioned in the film!
In effect the film made on the “Judgment of Paris” is only concerned with Chateau Montelana and it is the people behind the wine who wrote the script.
If the “true and essential story” had been told the film would have been more focused on the red Cabernet Sauvignon wine from Stag Leap. There would not have been a story on the Montelana!
As far as I’m concerned there are only 5 true things in and about the film – my name, the names of my companies, the date of the tasting, the names of Jim and Bo Barrat and the name of their wine Chateau Montelana, everything else is a nonsense.
I told Bo (who was only a boy at the time of the “Judgment of Paris”) “that the Hollywood script was complete rubbish!.
I was in touch through my legal representatives with the producers in Hollywood and ultimately in defference to my objections they were forced to put in place credits at the end of the film,.. stating that this film is fictional.
This covered me from suing them.
Had they not done this I could have sued them for libel,.. so at the end of the film amongst the credits they stated “this is a fictional story about a true event.”
As far as the film’s structure, cast and acting is concerned Alan Rickman played me (Steven Spurrier) in the film. In one respect, I can’t really complain because I have had a film made about me. At the start of the filming Alan Rickman telephoned me and said: “We are shooting a movie with you as the main character.” I replied that yes I have seen the script and as far as I’m concerned the script is defamatory!
And it makes me up to be a “sleazeball” who is losing money in a badly run wine business and is seeking to bolster his business interests with a cheap publicity trick. “The truth is my business was not failing.”
In any event it seems that after our contact Alan Rickman played my character much more sympathetically than the script had portrayed me but my bottom line is that the movie had nothing to do with the facts. However, I did feel somewhat honored to have a film made about me as not even Michael Broadbent, Jancis Robinson or Hugh Johnson have had a movie made about them. And the producers are right in saying the “Judgment of Paris” was a historical event.
It should however have been produced as a documentary.
It was the first crack in the wall of French domination which was a good lesson for France, which was resting on its laurels in winemaking and clearly needed a challenge to lift its act.
We redid the tasting and California took the first 5 places again.’’
Comprising California Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux Classified Growths
Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970
Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
Château Montrose 1970
Heitz Wine Cellars Martha’s Vineyard 1970
Château Haut-Brion 1970
Clos Du Val Winery 1972
Château Leoville Las Cases 1971
Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
Freemark Abbey Winery 1969
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
A bottle of 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay that won the white wine competition.
Château Montelena 1973
Meursault Charmes Roulot 1973
Chalone Vineyard 1974
Beaune Clos des Mouches Joseph Drouhin 1973
Spring Mountain Vineyard 1973
Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon 1973
Freemark Abbey Winery 1972
Puligny-Montrachet Les Pucelles Domaine Leflaive 1972
Veedercrest Vineyards 1972
David Bruce Winery 1973
The eleven judges were (in alphabetical order):
Pierre Brejoux (French) of the Institute of Appellations of Origin
Claude Dubois-Millot (French) (Substitute to Christian Millau)
Michel Dovaz (French) of the Wine Institute of France
Patricia Gallagher (American) of l’Academie du Vin
Odette Kahn (French) Editor of La Revue du vin de France
Raymond Oliver (French) of the restaurant Le Grand Véfour
Steven Spurrier (British)
Pierre Tari (French) of Chateau Giscours
Christian Vanneque (French) the sommelier of Tour D’Argent
Aubert de Villaine (French) of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
Jean-Claude Vrinat (French) of the Restaurant Taillevent
Blind tasting was performed and the judges were asked to grade each wine out of 20 points. No specific grading framework was given, leaving the judges free to grade according to their own criteria.
Rankings of the wines preferred by individual judges were done based on the grades they individually attributed.
An overall ranking of the wines preferred by the jury was also established in averaging the sum of each judge’s individual grades (arithmetic mean). However, grades of Patricia Gallagher and Steven Spurrier were not taken into account, thus counting only grades of French judges.
**This interview and narration of events, is based on my notes taken contemporaneously from an interview,with Steven Spurrier at the Wolsley Restaurant Picadilly,London on Tuesday the 2nd of March,2010.
Written by Axel Ritenis