His father came from Burrton, Kansas, and his mother, South Pasadena, California. His parents served in the Foreign Service from 1944 until 1970. Spencer was born in Vienna, Austria, and spent his boyhood in Brazil.
He worked as a waiter and sommelier in a “serious” restaurant for three years. “No one realized what was on our wine list,” he recalls. “We had 1969 Echézeaux and Romanée-Conti for $18 and $45 and 1962 Chateau d’Yquem for $25. I tasted a lot of great wine.” Intrigued by food, in 1977 he decided to investigate the vanguard restaurants of France and learn to cook. “I wanted to see if they were all they were cracked up to be. I was soon convinced.”While riding a horse on a family vacation in the state of Rio Grande del Sul, Spencer came upon a catch of unfermented grape juice cooling in a mountain stream. The memory of that taste stayed with him. After his parents were posted stateside in 1965, Spencer attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase (Maryland) High School and won a basketball scholarship to the University of Virginia, where he earned a degree in religious studies.
Spencer returned to his former restaurant, this time as its chef de cuisine, until 1982 when he invested a small inheritance in his own wine wholesale and import business. Eventually Spencer added five salespeople, expanded into D.C. and West Virginia, and specialized in great artisanal producers from California, France, Italy and Spain. Asked once how he could possibly sell so much Ojai wine, Spencer replied, “Either it’s good or it’s not. If it’s good, it pretty well sells itself.”
Early in 1993, during a visit to Viader Vineyards & Winery, he met the winery’s marketing consultant, Elizabeth Pressler. Later, she would recommend the wines of several of her Napa Valley clients to Spencer. As a result, he was the first Mid-Atlantic distributor of so-called cult wine producers like Araujo and Harlan Estate.
In July, 1994, he met with Elizabeth on business, and then accompanied her to dinner at the newly re-opened French Laundry. “We had a great time and afterwards ended up just sitting in her backyard on lawn chairs, talking and watching shooting stars.” Spencer returned home, but a three-year long-distance romance had begun. In 1997, the couple married.
Spencer had sold his business in 1996, but agreed to stay on as a consultant. So Elizabeth moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, commuting to Napa Valley every other month to meet with her clientele. One day just over a year later, Spencer declared that they should move to California, and Elizabeth agreed.
They settled in St. Helena and Spencer began his new trade as a winemaker. “He has an excellent palate,” Elizabeth says, “no doubt enhanced by his cooking experience. His palate memory is terrific, and his blending ability seems to be innate.”
As Spencer began establishing relationships with top-notch grapegrowers, Elizabeth was visualizing their winery concept and describing the label she would soon design. Elizabeth Spencer released its first wines from the 1998 vintage.