Thursday, March 11, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 12

Mea Culpa -- Wine lovers who follow "Decanter" magazine and those oldsters who can remember back to 1976, are familiar with the name Steven Spurrier, who passed away earlier this month.   A writer and Paris wine merchant, Spurrier put California wine on the map with the results of the Judgement of Paris, a comparative tasting where California wines bested French wines -- and that judgement was from French wine professionals.  Spurrier is also remembered for his memoir "A Life in Wine," from which I freely borrowed for my on-going personal wine adventure, without knowing of Spurrier's memoir.  


In Episode 11, my association with the "Wine Spectator" began in San Diego, watching it grow from a small tabloid newspaper. Key to that growth, according to Marvin Shanken, owner and editorial director, was a move to San Francisco. The editorial direction of the Spectator was in flux, but the small staff packed up and moved north. 

While the Spectator was struggling forward, the movement was agonizing at times, partly because of the transition of owners, but also having the publisher in New York and the newspaper in California.  Meanwhile, there was a lot of pressure being applied to increase advertising and circulation.

The small Spectator staff worked hard to stay on top of the growing North Coast California wine scene, from San Diego.  A growing newspaper is an insatiable consumer of news and feature material.  Slowly, though, we began to attract more contributors. Being new on the wine scene, the Spectator was a fresh way for some writers to reach the growing number of American wine drinkers, even though Spectator writer fees were painfully low.

Among those writers who began to submit stories regularly was Richard Paul Hinkle, who started writing for the Spectator before it changed hands.  Coverage of European wines in the Spectator was spotty, but began to improve with the addition of Christopher Stevens MW in France and Australia and Alan Spencer in Bordeaux.

Alan Spencer was an Englishman who lived in Castillon-la-Bataille, a small village not far from Saint Emilion.  Alan was a computer software salesman, with a  natural knack for writing and a curiosity about wine. Living in the middle of one of the world's great wine regions gave him the opportunity to taste and learn about wine firsthand.  On one of his sales trips, Spencer found a copy of the "Wine Spectator" in an airport lounge and that gave him an idea.

Castillon La Bataille - Buy this stock photo and explore similar images at  Adobe Stock | Adobe Stock
Castillon-la-Bataille on the Dordogne river

Going through the mail at my desk in the Spectator offices in San Diego, I noticed an envelope with a French stamp and postmark.  The letter's content described a chance airport find and that the writer noticed the Spectator did not seem to have anyone "on the ground" covering wine in Bordeaux.  

The letter writer was Alan Spencer and he was offering to be a correspondent, writing about the wines of Bordeaux. "If," he unknowingly said, "we were looking for one.Alan became one of the Spectator's most prolific writers, with his unique consumer observations of Bordeaux chateaux and their owners. 

Alan and his wife Monette eventually moved to just outside Cognac.  When Alan Spencer passed away in 2012, wine writing lost one of its unique voices.

Christopher "Kit" Stevens was another curious multi-talented Englishman who found his way into wine, becoming a Master of Wine in 1972.  Like Spencer, Kit Stephens lived in France, where he represented a number of French wines. He was a maverick who did his bit in the wine business on his own terms which didn't always sit well with the formal British wine establishment. 

In 2008, my Copy Editor and I were in France, heading for Bordeaux.  Kit was already contributing pieces to the Spectator, in his unique slyly critical style of admiring French wine while criticizing the way the French marketed and sold wine. 

Kit and his wife, Stella, a native of Australia, made their home in the old historic part of Cognac, where architectural design and style were strictly prescribed. All of that formality, however, didn't stop Kit from tweaking the city father's noses.

Old Houses In French Town Cognac. The Town Gives Its Name To.. Stock Photo,  Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 55160956.
Historic Cognac

"Finding my house is easy," Kit told me, "it's the one with the English blue front door."  When we finally found the narrow street where the Stephens lived, their place stood out, just as Kit had predicted.  Amidst all the uniform dun colored houses and front doors, Kit's blue door announced itself like an English beacon.

                                             House Number 53 On A Royal Blue Wooden Front Door With Vertical.. Stock  Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 147459162.

Kit Stephen was a rogue who happened to enjoy wine a little too much.  He and Stella divorced and she returned to Australia. Christopher M. Stephens MW passed away in 2004 at home in East Sussex, England.  

Advertising controls the size of a newspaper.  As we continued to reach out for more writers who would give the Spectator different views relating to wine -- restaurant wine lists, wine and health, wine competitions -- the struggle continued over balancing copy with advertising, while working to increase  subscriptions.  

It was an exciting time for American wine writing and the future for the Spectator looked promising, if unpredictable. 

In Episode 13, the Wine Spectator launches its first Wine Experience in New York and Marvin and Gerald have their big wine adventure in Europe.

End Note: A notice was sent recently to all readers of this blog announcing that the day of published would be Sunday.  That didn't work with, so starting with this blog, expect to see a new blog in your inbox every Friday.


Next Blog: Tokaj and Tokay (to be published March 19, 2021)




No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.