Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Humility, Grace and Wine - A Dinner with Steven Spurrier and Paul Draper

(May 2016) One of the marvels I’ve witnessed over the years is that often the most famous winemakers are the most humble. This is the case with Heidi Barrett, who’s 1992 Screaming Eagle broke the world record for one of the highest priced wines sold at auction, as well as with Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine from Domaine Romanee Conti, who lovingly produce some of the most coveted wine in the world from “God’s vineyards.” More recently I had a similar experience when I met Paul Draper of Ridge and Steven Spurrier, the man who launched the 1976 Judgment of Paris Tasting.
Dinner with Steven Spurrier at University Club in San Francisco
It happened at one of several Judgment of Paris 40th Anniversary Dinners in California.  This one was held at the University Club in San Francisco, and was organized by my friend Cheryl Lincoln. She had arranged for Steven and Paul to present an amazing selection of eleven wines that she had collected to pair with seven courses (see wines and menu below).

British Sparkling Against Le Reve

The first course was a selection of appetizers served with two sparkling wines: Domaine Carneros Le Reve Blanc de Blanc 2008 and a wine made at Steven’s winery in Dorset England called Bridge Valley Blanc de Blanc 2013.  Le Reve has long been one of my favorite California sparklings, with exquisite balance and complexity, and it did not disappoint on this occasion.  However, when compared to the Bridge Valley with its razor sharp acid and hints of chalky minerality, La Reve definitely showed its riper California heritage.  I love both wines, but was especially thrilled with the Bridge Valley, and was surprised that a few other people did not appreciate its light body and piercing acidity as much as I did.

Wine Served at the Dinner with Steven's Bride's Valley Sparkling second to the left

For the remainder of the meal, all the wines, with the exception of the concluding port, were served blind. Cheryl grouped them in varietal pairs, with one from California and the other from France. The nearly fifty dinner guests had to guess the provenance, and then Steven and Paul facilitated the discussion.

1978 Ridge Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon Steals the Night

The dinner was progressing nicely, and most guests were able to determine the wines quite easily, until we came to the clash of the cabs.  You would think that a 1978 Ridge up against a 1982 Chateau Leoville Las Cases would be easy to determine, but the exact opposite happened. If we had just used color we would have been fine because the Ridge was a medium garnet, whereas the Las Cases was a darker ruby.  However on the nose the two wines were quite surprising. The Ridge opened with copious amounts of barnyard bret, causing most people to place it squarely in Bordeaux. The Las Cases, on the other hand, showed classic cassis and herbal notes, but was almost too green with tarragon and pepper.

As the wines opened up, the bret blew off the “Bordeaux,” and the wine evolved into a mesmerizing symphony of dried berry, spice, leather, fine-grained tannins, and a very long finish. It had a wonderful texture that enticed you to taste it time and again. The “herbal” wine continued to stay in the green camp and developed complex earthy notes.  Conversation around the table was heated as everyone discussed the two wines.

Then Steven asked Paul to tell us which wine was his, and most were surprised when he pointed to the wine with the bret.  Just when many were thinking what an excellent Bordeaux it was, we discovered it was from the Santa Cruz mountains. It almost felt like the Judgment of Paris all over again!

The Humble Paul Draper of Ridge

Afterwards we asked Paul to talk about how he made the 1978 Ridge, and he said he didn’t do much at all.  He gave all of the credit to the Montebello vineyard site, and reminded us that he had never even trained as a winemaker. Instead he said he read a lot about how to make great Bordeaux, and then let the wine make itself as naturally as possible. He was so humble and self-effacing, and didn’t seem to want to take any credit for the great masterpiece we were tasting.  Even at the great old age of 1978, the Ridge Montebello was fresh, flavorful, and enticing.

Later I asked Paul about the bret, and he grinned and said, “Yes, we do have a little bret in some of our older bottles of Ridge.”

Steven Spurrier – A True Gentleman Exuding Honor

I had met Steven several years earlier at a Decanter tasting in London, but had never had a chance to talk to him much before this evening.  Despite the fact that he had celebrated his 70th birthday in 2011 with his first Bride Valley harvest, he is still incredibly good-looking, dashing, and the ultimate British gentleman. He spoke eloquently about the wines, and described his journey to California in 1975 to select the wines for the Judgment of Paris tasting. On that journey he met Paul, and they’ve been good friends every since.

Towards the end of the evening, I approached Steven to thank him for helping to put California wines on the world map. I told him I was a fifth generation California, and that what he had done meant a lot to me. Then I asked him a question that had always puzzled me, “How did you decide to feature California wines against the greatest wines of France?”

“Oh,” he said, “it wasn’t my idea.  It was Patricia Gallagher’s.”


“Yes, my partner in the wine school in Paris.  She was American and thought it would be fun to feature California wines to celebrate 1976.  She was always telling me how great the wines were, so she did the advance trip to Napa, and then I came over later to make the final selection.”

“Really?” I said. “How amazing!  Where is she now?  Why isn’t she here?”

“She’s off sailing the Adriatic with her husband,” Steven responded with a charming smile.  “She love’s sailing.”

As I walked away, I thought how humble and honorable Steven was to give all of the credit to Patricia.  Many people would not do that – especially since he was the person who facilitated the famous tasting. It did, however, make me want to meet Patricia, the sailor, even more.

So as I departed that delightful dinner, incredibly impressed with the amount of planning and creativity Cheryl had employed in pairing the wines and food, I also left with a deeper respect for Paul and Steven. Obviously they are both brilliant and talented professionals who have offered much to the world of wine, but they are also very honorable and humble human beings.

Cheryl Lincoln, the Brilliant Organizer of the Event

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