David Ridgway spends a million pounds a year on wine. But then David Ridgway is an exceptional man. He is the Englishman who’s in charge of the best wine cellar in Paris - in fact the best cellar of French wine in the world. Deep beneath the Michelin-starred Tour d’Argent restaurant, on the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris, are two basement floors containing 500,000 bottles of wine. The most valuable (anything over 300 euros) are kept in a locked vault, lined with battleship steel, where no employee – not even chef sommelier David Ridgway – is allowed in alone.
‘It’s not that we don’t trust the staff,’ Ridgway tells me, ‘but when you’re dealing with wines like this, you cannot take any chances.’ Indeed, the special cellar only came into being a few years ago when a junior sommelier had an accident with a stepladder and broke the oldest bottle in the cellar, an 1811 Château Lafite.
Oldest Wine in the Cellar
The oldest remaining wine is a Château Léoville Barton Bordeaux dating from 1845. ‘We also,’ says Ridgway as I follow him through the narrow passageways in the dark cellar, ‘have things like the last Royal Cognac ever made, in 1788. The following year, of course, they had a revolution here.’
Oldest Restaurant in Paris
Ridgway has a quiet sense of humour, and a self-deprecating modesty, beneath his urbane and business-like exterior. And yet his story is a remarkable one. He came to the Tour d’Argent (which is also the oldest restaurant in Paris, dating back to 1582) as a very junior employee in 1981. ‘I was basically a washer-up and cleaner-up,’ he says. And yet within twelve months he had become the chef sommelier in charge of this historic wine collection, at the age of just 26. And an Englishman at that. ‘How did it happen? I don’t know, really. Maybe I just worked harder than anyone else, maybe I wanted the job more, maybe there was a bit of luck involved too. When I was given the job, we didn’t hush it up that I was an Englishman, but then we didn’t exactly shout it from the rooftops either. Today it might make good publicity, but in those days…’
Ridgway’s background was a very ordinary English upbringing. ‘I probably had my first taste of wine one Christmas, and it was probably pretty dreadful stuff. My family were certainly Francophiles, but growing up in England in the late 50s and early 60s, even people who were interested in wine weren’t drinking very good stuff. It just wasn’t part of the English culture then.’
He went to Hotel School in London (‘they used to pick up the dregs of those who were unsuccessful in examinations’), and admits that like any student he enjoyed drinking, especially the end-of-term parties. Jobs as a barman followed, before he was taken on by the Roux Brothers, working at both the Waterside Inn and La Gavroche. At the Waterside Inn he first started to take an interest in wine, and became a sommelier, and after moving to La Gavroche he became the Head Waiter.
‘I started to learn more about wine at that time, and discovered that the more you know, the more you get interested. The Roux Brothers let me go to the Wine and Spirit Trust, which was very helpful.’
David Ridgway Manages the Best Wine Cellar in Paris
All Photos (c) La Tour d'Argent
From Head Waiter to Sommelier
Wanting some experience in Europe, he left the Roux Brothers after 5 years and travelled and worked in Germany, before moving to Paris. His humble job at the Tour d’Argent came up, and he has been there ever since.
‘For me,’ he says, ‘it was like a child coming into a candy store. I was able to spend time visiting vineyards, which I had only previously done very occasionally. Suddenly there was all this fine wine to taste. It’s a job I certainly enjoy! Maybe I’m just not very ambitious, but I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. It’s a wonderful place. I have had offers, to work elsewhere or to do things like being a consultant for supermarkets, but although I could earn more money, I just don’t see the point. As I spend longer here I am able to see the wines maturing, I see how different wines have turned out, which broadens my knowledge and helps me plan for the future.’
A Glimpse into the Best Wine Cellar in Paris
The Best Wine Cellar in the World?
So, does the Tour d’Argent have the best wine cellar in the world? ‘Well, I wouldn’t like to make that claim. But I think it is probably the best cellar of French wine.’ Even with half a million bottles – and Ridgway has tasted every wine in the racks – the cellar is far from comprehensive. ‘We’re only just starting to explore the wines of the Languedoc,’ he says.
There are also, as yet, no wines from any other country, apart from port and sherry. Ridgway feels that New World wines are not yet ready for ageing, and also the Tour d’Argent specialises in traditional French cuisine, with both the menus and the customers demanding traditional French wines as the right accompaniment.
‘If we were a different type of restaurant,’ he says, ‘then we would have different wines. But we are what we are, and the cellar is a part of that. We buy about 25,000 bottles a year, which is roughly what we sell. So we have enough wine in the cellar to last us twenty years, if you look at it that way. But it is not just about numbers and economics. There is tradition and history here, and it is part of my job to maintain that tradition.’
The Pleasure of Wine
Yet that serious outlook goes alongside an unadulterated pleasure in wine. ‘I do worry these days about some of the younger sommeliers,’ he says. ‘They visit vineyards and refuse some of the wines because they’re on diets or training for a marathon! Some of them today have an overly intellectual and pompous approach to wine. They forget about the pleasure side of it.’
That is not something Ridgway could ever be accused of, as he admits that one of the joys of his job is advising customers and seeing them enjoy their wine. ‘The giving of pleasure is what good food and wine ought to be about,’ he says, and adds with a twinkle in his eye: ‘I think I only became a sommelier to avoid becoming an alcoholic!’
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