Steven Spurrier – customs agents, dinners with the Queen and a warm farewell

Steven Spurrier – customs agents, dinners with the Queen and a warm farewell

When remembering Steven Spurrier, one must remember important events in history. Steven had a habit of making history or making his way into history… this is the story of how he crossed paths with Hambledon, the Queen of England and the European Common Market.

On May 1972, Queen Elizabeth II made a state visit to Paris as part of warming diplomatic relations between the two countries, leading to Britain's entry into the European Common Market the following year. One of the events during her stay was a dinner Her Majesty the Queen hosted at the British embassy for the French president Georges Pompidou.

Shortly before her visit, Steven Spurrier received a phone call from none other than Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, who was not only the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps in the Royal Households, but a pioneer in the world of English wine who had planted 4.5 acres of Seyve-Villard and Chardonnay vines in Hambledon, Hampshire. Sir Guy had called to suggest serving his white wine at the dinner for Pompidou. "Wouldn't it be greatly amusing to serve an English wine to the president of France?" he said. Spurrier agreed and ordered five cases of Sir Guy's wine for the planners at the embassy to put on the menu.

Just two days before the event, however, Spurrier got a call from a customs agent at Orly Airport. The Hambledon wine had arrived, but there was a problem… with time short before the dinner, Spurrier raced to Orly to see the customs agent, who told him that unfortunately the wine could not be imported into France. "But why not?" asked Spurrier. "It has arrived, and here are the papers!"

"Because English wine does not exist," the customs agent replied. "Here is my list of goods that can be exported from England to France. There is no wine. There is no such thing as English wine, so I cannot clear it through customs. I cannot clear what doesn't exist." Spurrier was trapped in the maddening French logic that has driven the English crazy for a thousand years. Frustrated and seeing no way around this standoff with the law-abiding civil servant, Spurrier reluctantly returned to Paris.

The next day he called the customs officer for a second try. "Do me a favour," Spurrier said. "It's only sixty bottles. Let's just pretend that it's French wine. I'll pay you whatever I have to."

"I'm sorry, monsieur," said the official. "I cannot do that. We will have to send the cases back to England."

"No, don't do that! I'm coming back to Orly."

"It's no use, monsieur. There's nothing I can do."

When Spurrier returned to the airport and walked into the custom agent's office, he saw the five cases of wine on the floor next to the man's desk. "But the wine is there! You see it!" Spurrier said with growing exasperation.

"Of course, monsieur. It is physically there, but the wine does not exist because it is not on the list of exported English products."

Spurrier lost his temper and like a schoolmaster addressing a particularly dull student asked, "Does your job exist? Do you like your job?"

"Of course, monsieur."

"Well, in about two hours your job will no longer exist because this wine is supposed to be served tonight to President Pompidou and the Queen of England. If the wine is not there, you will be held responsible!"

With amazing speed the customs officer put the proper stamps on the official papers, and the wine was cleared through customs. Spurrier was soon on his way back to Paris with the 'non-existent' wine.

That night the Queen served it to her French guests, who doubtlessly opined, "How curious! An English wine!"

Farewell Steven. Thank you.

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