In Paris, Monaco or Tokyo, Gérard Margeon never trifles with wine. “Here at the Plaza Athénée, we propose a selection of 100% French wines”, the Head Sommelier of the Alain Ducasse group tells me as he receives me ‘off-duty’, wearing a dark suit with a matching roll-neck sweater. We enter his cellar in the basement of this world-renowned Parisian luxury hotel. Elsewhere, in the 26 other establishments based all over the world that proudly proclaim the name ‘Ducasse’, wine is presented with the group’s international image. An upturned barrel serves as a table in this cellar filled with 40 000 bottles which is open for visits from guests staying at the Parisian luxury hotel. Gérard Margeon is a talkative man; he was born in Burgundy in 1961 at the Hospices de Beaune. He opens a bottle taken almost at random from the rack nearby. He opens it (one can imagine it must be at least the millionth bottle …) without saying much, just enough to entice the journalist who is flabbergasted to taste so early in the morning and as part of an interview, a white wine that is as dry as mineral and astoundingly unusual into the bargain. “A volcano wine”, my interviewee concedes…he likes toying with enigmas. Then he reveals its origins: “A Santorini, a Greek wine I love, made with the Assyrtiko variety from the only domain on the island of Santorin. I put it on nearly all my wine lists, because I really consider it to be an educational element for my sommeliers.”
It seems this interview is off at top-speed …Straight away, a question comes to mind. How does Gérard Margeon manage to taste such a huge number of wines when he never stops travelling? “It’s true, I spend my life in planes. But as I travel mainly with Air France, I never refuse the opportunity to taste wines selected by my friend Olivier (Poussier). Please note that I taste, I don’t drink. As soon as we take off, I set my watch to the same time of the country of destination, which means I don’t suffer too much with “jet lag”. Otherwise, I take quite good care of my health. A former long-distance runner, I still run in Central Park, the Bois de Boulogne or elsewhere.”
Once he has started, having accepted to devote us some time, nothing stops Gérard Margeon. He talks about his early years at the Hotel School in Sémur-en-Auxois, where he learned to be a receptionist and other less pleasant tasks, such as ironing table linen and he continues to tell me about his first job when he was confronted with a wine cellar, because “as a novice, I was made to transport everything.” He readily talks about his life and eludes nothing; he seems to talk about all subjects at once. But he always comes back to wine. “As a teenager, I had a passion for skiing. I still go to the Tignes resort in August. It was here, in May 1981, that I met my wife Sophie, who comes from the Pays Basque and it was in Biarritz, when seawater therapy was just beginning to take off, that I began working at the Miramar Hotel. I started at the bottom of the ladder and finished as Head Sommelier. I remember we used to have show-business super stars staying at the hotel for fitness holidays. They used
to come and see me on the quiet to negotiate half a glass of Jurançon from Ramonteu.” Jurançon seems to be his first major discovery for wine. These days he still thinks about it, sometimes with a hint of regret: “I would have liked to have met Yvonne Hegoburu whose wines at Domaine de Souch impressed me so much”, he mentions in passing. It’s never too late…
But Gérard Margeon has excellent memories of the visits he made to the Bordeaux region with a wine merchant from Langon, Pierre Coste, who used to accompany him to leading estates. Grudgingly, he admits that at the time he rather disowned wines from his own native region, Burgundy. “My tastes had become extremely influenced by Bordeaux wines. I took a great interest in the financial aspect of the well-known properties. Our bosses encouraged us to get to know this winegrowing area and I took full advantage of the opportunity. I remember one of my first large purchases of which I was very proud: 12 magnums of Haut Marbuzet 1982. Winegrowers in the Médoc told me at that time: “We are going to have a huge harvest in 1982, an excellent wine and earn lots of money. It will enable us to repair our roofing and buy new barrels.” In the meantime, winegrowers in Burgundy could only think of one thing: buying a new Mercedes! Towards the middle of the 1980s I did a “harvest training period” at Cordier, along with Olivier Poussier. Cordier had understood that a sommelier needed to be well-informed in order to sell wine correctly.”
To the great displeasure of his boss, Gérard Margeon wanted to have the experience of working for a large international chain and left the South-West of France for Paris, where he accepted the position of Head Sommelier for the new Méridien Hotel in Montparnasse. “It was great: I took the plane to go and open the Méridien in San Francisco.” He met Philippe Faure-Brac, for whom he joined the preparation team for the ‘World’s Best Sommelier’ competition. “I had already been to California three times. I used to go skiing with Philippe too. We even revised in the ski lift! As for me, I reached the finals of the ‘Master of Port’ competition; I took part in the Paul-Louis Meysonnier Competition and won the title of ‘France’s Best Young Sommelier’ in 1983.”
A year after Philippe Faure-Brac’s victory came Gérard Margeon’s encounter with Alain Ducasse. “I was in the midst of lunch service, it was a Thursday in October 1993 and at around 1.45pm, I received from the South of France a telephone call from Alain, who I didn’t know then. He told me: “I’m looking for a Head Sommelier and I’ll call you back at 3pm.” When he called back to ask to meet me urgently, I replied that I couldn’t come because when I opened my diary I saw that I’d reserved a weekend to visit Romanée Conti. He replied: “Your plane ticket can be put forward to Saturday morning; I’m expecting you.” Straight away, I called my wife and she said “It’s up to you.” I have three children and we were comfortably settled in Paris. I admit that the prospect of this new life didn’t really appeal to her. So, in April 1994, I found myself in Monte Carlo at the Louis XV. I then asked Alain Ducasse if he was taking me on a trial basis and if so for how long. He replied: “What are you talking about. I’ve no time to waste. You can’t go wrong here.” A very good answer, but it didn’t reassure me, because I had such a great weight on my shoulders. I worked with Jean-Pierre Rous and I had to bring freshness to the wine list. I knew how to get by with managing the stock comprised of 500 000 bottles and a reserve of Grande Champagne stored in tuns, which we bottled ourselves as requests were placed. It was the most marvellous experience of dining room service I’ve ever had. We had a great deal of work and had to be a thousand times more meticulous than elsewhere. Members of the Monaco Opera came to teach us how to walk correctly in the dining room, where there was seating for 45 guests. No error was possible for such a highly demanding clientele. Every Saturday, we tasted a dish and had to work on the wine combinations with the service staff.”
For a year, Gérard dealt exclusively with the Louis XV. Then in 1995, he was assigned ‘La Bastide de Moustier’ in addition to a contract with the Hédiard firm’s restaurant. He came back to Paris in 1996 when Alain Ducasse took over ‘Robuchon’ in the the 16th district and stayed here until his transfer in 2000 to the Alain Ducasse restaurant at the Plaza Athénée. Here Gérard Margeon is assisted by Laurent Roucayrol. A year after his arrival at the Plaza Athénée, Gérard Margeon put away his uniform and worked with his own brokers, made his own mark on the restaurants of the group, and also on the Alain Ducasse Training Centre. Faced with a vast number of samples that he must assess with his colleagues, he has set up a “tasting area” at the ‘Aux Lyonnais’ restaurant, in the centre of Paris, where he tastes hundreds of samples with young sommeliers, young people of diverse nationalities. He points out: “I divide the samples into two groups: those we have expressly asked for and those we have not requested.
We always reply to the second category in the most honest way possible and even if our opinion isn’t positive, we are always careful never to give lessons.”
Our interview ends by a visit of the cellar. In a safe, I can see three bottles of 1911,
the year the Plaza Athénée was inaugurated. The labels can just be read… Gruaud Larose, a Léoville Poyferré and a Mouton… Amidst all these wines, not counting those which have been purchased, but slumber in the cellars of various domains, these three bottles almost go unnoticed. As for Gérard Margeon, he is already elsewhere, or rather he has returned home to Burgundy. “For the Ducasse group, I’m lucky enough to have what constitutes probably the most magnificent stock of bottles from Henri Jayer.
I let them rest at the domain and I ask for them to be delivered here when we need them.”
That certainly is a luxury, isn’t it?