David Ridgway, head sommelier and wine buyer at La Tour d’Argent in Paris, has spent more than 35 years transforming the legendary restaurant’s cellar into a veritable library of the finest French wines.
Home to 300,000 bottles, the cellar includes up to 40 vintages of the greatest wines of France. Prices range from €60 for entry-level wines to €20,000 for wines like 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and 1982 Pétrus. The rarest and most expensive wines, held on the cellar’s first floor, are protected by wrought iron gates and walls reinforced with battleship-grade steel.
The cellar temperature is controlled to within half a degree: 13°C in summer and 11.5°C in winter, allowing wines to mature at the optimal rate, and providing Ridgway (whose office is in the centre of the cellar) with the cool head he needs for making decisions on his annual wine buying budget of €1m.
You once described La Tour d’Argent’s cellar as a paradise of wine, saying you would never wish to work elsewhere. What have you enjoyed most about your 38 years there?
There is the beauty of tasting the finest wines on earth, of tasting the wines that you have laid down for 15 or 20 years. I have tasted the last 40 vintages of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. They imbue you with a unique feeling of wellbeing; they transport you to a higher plain. At vineyards in Burgundy and elsewhere, I have developed relationships with three generations of vintners.
Earning the respect of customers and winemakers is very rewarding, as is the constant sharing of opinions with chefs at the restaurant. This combination, together with the exceptional view of the Seine and Notre Dame, has created a unique atmosphere at La Tour d’Argent.
You expanded La Tour d’Argent’s wine list from 100 pages with 1,000 wines in 1981, to today’s 400 pages with 15,000 wines. How have buying decisions changed of late?
I like to spend money. It is always been a bit of a problem, discussing budgets with the accountants and the restaurant owner, but now we are buying less as customers are drinking less. In Paris, we sell a maximum of 15,000 bottles a year in the restaurant, which, on average, represents close to a quarter of a bottle per person per meal. 75% of reservations are now for two people, many of whom order wine by the glass.
Customers now have a tendency to drink younger wines. We buy up to five or ten cases directly from about 40 to 50 producers. Buying wine on allocation from producers now means that if you don’t buy one year, the wines may not be available to buy the following year. The very high prices of the most recent Burgundy and Bordeaux vintages make buying them more difficult, but you can still find a Bruno Clair for €180 a bottle, for example, which shows how some red Burgundy can be relatively cheap, considering its rareness and quality.
What are customers at La Tour d’Argent drinking?
We are selling more red Burgundy than ever, but less white Burgundy. In the restaurant, most people ask for Burgundy, the Rhône and the Loire Valley.
Which celebrities or heads of state have you served there?
Mick Jagger, Prince, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, to name but a few. Woody Allen has a keen interest and knowledge in wine; his taste has evolved from Bordeaux to Burgundy over time. Elton John, who ordered a bottle of Louis Roederer’s Cristal, was extremely charming. In just one week, we had a visit from Bill Clinton, who drank a 1988 Château Margaux, and from Boris Yeltsin, who drank a 1990 Chambertin Clos de Beze. Of the two, Yeltsin drank the most.
In just one week, we had a visit from Bill Clinton and from Boris Yeltsin. Of the two, Yeltsin drank the most.
Some French sommeliers complain that restaurants in Paris mark up wine by as much as five or six times the buying price…
Managing prices is a difficult daily task. We try to keep prices down, but it’s hard to explain why we are selling wine cheaper than they could be sold at auction. Some customers ask to buy a case of wine to take home with them, but I know it’s not to drink themselves – it’s to sell them on at higher prices.
I gather there was an accident with an 1811 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, which was once the oldest wine in La Tour d’Argent cellar. What happened?
A cellar assistant was up a stepladder and knocked the bottle to the ground, smashing it. He didn’t have to pay for the wine, but I had great difficulty explaining the damage to Claude Terrail [Tour d’Argent’s then owner]. The 1811 vintage from the Year of the Great Comet was known to be a wine of exceptional quality. I daren’t think what it was worth [so-called Comet Vintages occur after comets are seen and in winemaking lore are reckoned always to be exceptional: 1811 is one of the most legendary. In 2007 a bottle of 1811 Lafite fetched €36,000 at Christie’s Los Angeles].
You joined La Tour d’Argent in 1981 after moving to France from Britain. The management initially kept it quiet that you were British. Having now lived in France longer than in Britain, do you feel more French or British?
Until now, I never really wanted to obtain French nationality. There was no need. But now [with Brexit] I am dying to do so, but it has become a very lengthy process because so many people are applying for French nationality.
The word is that you are about to retire. Is this true?
I no longer do the restaurant service – I am rather bored of people spending the whole evening on their smartphones rather than talking to each other – however, there is no date set for my retirement.
If you had to choose five favourite wines and their vintages what would they be?
The pleasure of wine lies in its diversity. Choosing wines depends on what you are eating, your mood, where you are, how you feel and the atmosphere. If I had to, I would choose reds or whites from my go-to region, such as the 1985 vintage Côte de Beaune in Burgundy. Any Champagne from the Grand Cru villages of Chouilly and Cramant, aged 10 years in the bottle, would be marvellous. As Claude Terrail always said: ‘There is no party without Champagne.’