At the age of 30, Steven Spurrier has been a wine merchant for almost a year. This is rather young to be taking on as tradition-bound a trade as selling wine, but to be a long-haired, Mod Englishman established in Paris compounds the cheekiness of it all. Worse yet, he is well on his way to being one of the very best and best-informed merchants in the city.
Oui, bien sûr, but does he have le pif? – literally a chnozz, but here a flair, a sense, for wine.
Yes, he does, and to go with it he has a palate attuned and educated to clean, delicate and distinguished wines. There are a few mistakes in his still limited stock but they are rapidly being pushed out by some of the best wines available from nearly every region of France.
He learned to pick them the hard way. Seven years ago he graduated from the London School of Economics. Rather than go into the stock market he decided to do something he would really enjoy, so he entered the wine trade in London.
Despite a certain financial independence, he began at the bottom, rolling barrels and stocking bottles in the dingy East End cellars of an elegant West End wine store. After a year of this, the firm sent him out for nine months of vineyard experience in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
After a few ups and downs as an independent in the London wine trade and a move to southern France, which included an abortive attempt at selling antiques, Spurrier decided to go back to what he enjoyed and moved to Paris.
Walking through an alley near the Madeleine with a friend one day, he was talking about his plans to try to buy a wine store in Paris.
"Well, what about that one?" the friend asked as they passed a store in the alley.
"How do I know it's for sale?"
"You don't, but give it a try," his friend answered. She went in and it was, in fact, for sale, although for far more than he could afford. This didn't hold him back for long.
He advertised for capital and rapidly got half the amount he needed. He got the rest from friends and a loan. By March, 1971, he was in business. His reputation is rising, particularly among those English-speaking foreigners who have had the luck to run into him, although plenty of his clientele is French.
Frenchmen used to order directly from châteaux and growers and lay down their own cellars, but few people can do this anymore. For that matter, garages often replace wine cellars in modern buildings.
Spurrier would like to offer the sort of services usually available in the better British wine stores, but for which there has not really been a need in France until now.
He hopes to be able to act as an adviser for buyers. They would come to him once or twice a year for advice on buying a wine cellar. He would suggest what to buy, when, how long to keep it, when to serve it and what to do if the buyer wants to resell it for profit.
His advice would be guaranteed to the extent that he would buy back at cost plus 10 percent any wine he suggested. He would also store wine – for a fee – for clients who do not have good cellars.
All these practices exist in England but they would be quite new in France and, if successful, might revolutionize the retail wine trade, which aside from chains selling mass-production wine is badly organized.
For the moment Spurrier's stock is small, but choice. He has not repeated his earlier mistake of investing too heavily and thus the great, expensive wines are largely missing now, but then anyone with a little book knowledge and money can buy a great château wine in a great year.
What is difficult, and what Spurrier excels at, is buying wines for taste rather than name. His simple Gamay de Touraine, his Chinon or Bourgueil, his Lirac (from the Rhône Valley) are delicious, inexpensive wines – none costing more than 8 francs.
The same is true of his red and white Bordeaux, except that they run a little higher, and he has a perfect Alsatian Riesling. Most telling of all, he has even found what was long thought to be extinct: a real, honest-to-God, clean and tasty rosé de Provence.
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On the back of a "June 1972" calendar, published by the promotion department of the International Herald Tribune:
Wines & Spirits
Who reads the International Herald Tribune?
About 260,000 well-heeled, well-informed European residents, according to a recent IFOP study. A quarter of a million people with a nicely varied range of occupations, interests and tastes.
But the Herald Tribune is equally well-read by other European media, always a good sign of editorial edge. As the following story illustrates.
Early this year, Jon Winroth, a Trib feature writer, did a piece on Steve Spurrier, owner of the Caves de la Madeleine in Paris. Story told how Spurrier, an Englishman, successfully plies a trade heretofore uniquely French, especially in the heart of the huitième arrondissement.
And what happened? Well, business picked up, for one thing. Readers came in to meet Spurrier and to buy his wines. But the story also spurred something Spurrier (and Winroth) least expected: calls from newspapers, radio and t.v. stations who also wanted to interview the wine merchant and write his story.
Within days, inquiries were received from France-Soir, Le Figaro and Europe No. 1, all in Paris; from the Daily Mirror, Daily Telegraph, BBC and Radio One, all in London; from the Paris-based Revue Vinicole Internationale; and others. Each has followed up with articles, interviews, picture-stories.
And the moral of the story? Permit us to revive an old slogan. To tell it to Europe, tell it in the Trib. Where the key Europeans will see it. Usually first.