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Steven Spurrier an international judge at the 2015 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show


For people living in Europe at the time, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 did not appear to have made the Great War inevitable, yet by early August the major powers had passed from sabre-rattling to all-out conflict. The situation had been hovering perilously close to a conflagration for some time and almost any crisis might have done the trick. This is all clear with hindsight: it is only after such an event produces seismic consequences that the survivors are forced to examine the connection between supposed causes and known results. As one historian put it, you strike a match to light a candle only to discover you are in a powder keg.

In 1976, Steven Spurrier, an English wine merchant living in Paris, organised a blind taste-off pitting the best wines of France against those of California. At the time, Napa Valley was something of a backwater and its wines were largely unknown except amongst American aficionados. The tasting was planned to coincide with America’s bicentennial celebrations – which is why many of the leading French producers and their American counterparts, as well as some of the most influential publishers of the day, agreed to participate.

The final rankings were based only on the scores of the French judges (who included Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, representatives of the Institute of Wines of Origin and the French Wine Institute and sommeliers and proprietors of several of the top French restaurants). The outcome shocked the world. Californian wines topped both the red and white wine groups – leading to the hitherto inconceivable conclusion that perhaps French hegemony of the fine wine industry was finally over.

There are any number of anecdotes surrounding the tasting and its aftermath. Spurrier had invited several journalists to attend but only George Taber from Time magazine turned up, and it was his article on the subject which helped the event to achieve celebrity status. The French press remained resolutely silent in the midst of the international media storm. Only about three months later did Figaro comment on the tasting (and then it was to rubbish the outcome). Le Monde took even longer. Odette Kahn, one of the panellists and editor of France’s most prestigious wine publication, called for the withdrawal of her ballot and criticized the whole enterprise.

There were commentators who questioned the credentials of the judges and the scoring methodology; others who disputed that the best wines of the best contemporary vintages had been entered. This added to the noise, but it didn’t change the impact that the Judgement of Paris tasting had on the perceptions of the market. From that moment onwards, the world of wine had changed irrevocably. Arguably, Steven Spurrier struck the match which illuminated what was really happening in the world of wine, and in doing so, shaped its future.

Spurrier – who is chairman of the Decanter Awards (probably the world’s largest wine competition) – was in South Africa last week as one of the three international judges at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. It’s been about 8 years since his last visit so he was in an ideal position to track the changes and improvements of the past decade. Even allowing for the fact that very few of the rock-star producers risk entering their wines in competitions – so he would not have had a chance to assess what is happening in that most adventurous segment of the industry – he described several of the wines he had tasted as “phenomenal.” Time and again he commented on how quality and wine styles were almost unrecognisable compared with his previous trip.

For those of us living with the extraordinary changes at the quality end of the Cape wine market, what has happened since roughly 2005 may seem like a very gradual evolution. However, for a man accustomed to life at the epicentre of seismic events, it’s been nothing short of a revolution.