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SoChic Stories

For the Love of Wine: Interview with French Sommelier Stéphanie Rigourd

In an immaculate hotel lobby with the soft tunes of live piano, So Chic met with renowned French sommelier, Stéphanie Rigourd. You would perhaps think that working in fancy restaurants and hotels, Stéphanie would be oh la la, how-you-say, “atas“. Well, she talks about wine with great elegance and knows her craft incredibly well but the cliché stops here. It’s with a bright smile, full of peps and energy that the young sommelier answered our questions telling us the story of how a small girl from the French countryside became a grand sommelier of Singapore, sharing with us lovely stories of her journey across wine. And finally, bringing her fresh look on oenology she told us what wine means for her and why she loves it so much.

Read the interview and you will see what dedication and passion are made of!

When did you find out your passion for wine?

It was deep inside me, it started when I was a little girl. I grew up in a family where wine is literally part of the culture and where wine is always on the table. My dad gave me the chance to try wine since my youngest years by letting me smell it, or dip my biscuits into it… And even now I still dip my biscuits into red wine sometimes because it reminds me the times when I was a kid. I’ve always found wine interesting because it has the power to bring people together around the table. Growing up, I knew I loved wine and food but I didn’t think it could become my job. I came from a modest family so I had never heard about sommeliers before, I had no idea it existed.

How did you end up in the wine industry?

At 16 years old arrived the horrible moment when I had to choose my career path, and I was very bad at school so I couldn’t go to high school like everyone else. My dad told me “well, you love moving, you can’t stay in place, you love speaking, you love wine, you love food so let’s go for hospitality”. So, I went for an internship as a waitress and I’ll always remember my first day; I was cleaning up the entrance of the restaurant and I told myself “I can’t do this for the rest of my life, I know I can do better”. I had the chance to work for a lovely couple at the time. They had already travelled all around the world and for a girl like me, coming from the countryside, it was really impressive and exciting. They noticed my love for wine and they told me about the sommeliers. I realised then that my passion could become a job.

These people helped me to open my mind to the world and told me “You know Stéphanie, if you want to do something better in your life you need to travel. This restaurant and the place where you come from are nothing compared to the whole planet”. They are the ones who convinced me to apply at the sommelier school of Tain-L’Hermitage. I didn’t know at the time how good the reputation of this school was. I just applied because it was near my place. It happened to be one of the most established wine school of France.

I was not accepted at first because my résumé was basically empty and I was very young compared to the others. However, 2 weeks before the start of the school year, I was called to join them because someone decided to drop out.

So that’s how I ended up working full time for and with wine, making my dream come true

Could you briefly tell us about your career?

I started at 18 studying in that school (you can not attend if you’re underage so I couldn’t go at 16) and doing several internships. My first job was in La Bastide de Gordes (which was at the time Relai-Château in the Luberon) where I learnt a lot. Then my second job was in Les Sources de Caudalie at the heart of the famous Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux, it was fantastic, and I was working there with a very tough Chef Sommelier who made me cry a lot, and I am so grateful he did because I learnt so much. A year after, I moved to Burgundy where I worked for a Michelin Starred Chef for more than a year and a half. And then from there, I moved to Singapore.

Would you have an anecdote to share with us about all these years in the wine industry?

Yes, a story of when I just started working for La Bastide de Gordes. Basically, the hotel was on a cliff, and Gordes is a suspended village so the hotel was on different levels. The main restaurant was on level 0 and the wine cellar was two floors down. My Chef Sommelier told me “table 4, order of Dom Perignon rose champagne” so I was really excited to open my first Dom Perignon. Because it’s an expensive champagne we didn’t keep it in the fridge because it was too cold but in the wine cellar instead. So, I ran down to the basement to pick up the bottle of champagne and I ran back up with the bottle in my hands. Since the bottle was in the basement it was warmer than usual, and when a bottle is warmer the pressure inside is higher… Proudly, I brought the bottle to the guests, showed them the label and opened the bottle following the instructions I learnt. Apparently, it was not enough… The wine exploded and the first reflex I had was to put my hand on the bottle, so it ended up splashing everywhere in the middle of the restaurant. I panicked and ran to the back of the hotel crying like there’s no tomorrow.
Even worse, the lady was wearing a white dress… It was traumatising but I learnt a lot from this experience.

However, besides this bad memory, many amazing things happened to me since I started working as a sommelier because I got to meet with incredible people. In Singapore for instance I had the chance to serve and select the wines for Lee Kuan Yew, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson.

Wow, do tell us, what wine did Lee Kuan Yew like?

He loved Gevrey Chambertin (burgundy wine) and Riesling (white wine) from Germany or Alsace. I served him a couple of times. I remember the first time I served him he asked me “What are you doing here?” because I was the only angmo (white people) in the room, so I told him “I heard Singapore is a fine city so I came here”. He loved the answer and after that remembered my name, that was very special. I served him 5 years between 2010 and 2015.

Is it a challenge in this industry to be a woman, and a very young one on top of that?

Yes definitely. I’m saying this now, but I never realised it until recently. When I was much younger I was blinded by my passion and by the excitement to pursue my goal of being the best. It never came to my mind that sometimes, when I was rejected, it could be because I was young or because I was a woman. It took me time to understand it could be a problem.

I was blinded by my passion and by the excitement to pursue my goal of being the best

I guess, in France it was more of a plus because when I was working in French restaurants people were very interested and surprised in a good way. So I had many people asking me questions and being curious. Overall, I had a good experience in France even though there were still rather mean people that would tell me “What do you have to suggest, I started to drink wine, you were not even born”.

But in Asia, it is a bit different. Being a young woman was still a problem but the biggest problem was that I am an angmo. So people saw me as a yaya papaya (arrogant) angmo that came to the table to show them I knew wine and not them. So being a foreigner was definitely more of an obstacle than being a young woman.

You’ve been working quite some time in Singapore, do you think Singaporeans’ behaviour regarding wine has changed?

Because I worked in so many different kinds of environments and atmospheres, it’s difficult for me to have a clear comparison. Are locals drinking more wine now than before? That’s for sure. And you can easily tell when you see places like Wine Connection. Those places are packed with locals and the phenomenon is growing. However, in the luxury industry, wines are super expensive. In Singapore, there’s a culture of bringing your own wine to the restaurant. We’re trying to break this habit because being served by sommeliers gives another experience of wine as we can share the art of wine and select what would suit clients’ palate the best. And obviously, we are paid to serve our clients not to open their bottles. However this habits still depends on the places, in Marina Bay Sands , there is the casino, so people from the casino will buy the wine from you. But in Raffles hotel or in Hilton hotels I had mostly people bringing their own wine.

You’ve been Raffles Hotel’s sommelier for quite some time, and you’re leaving, why?

I got a beautiful opportunity coming along. When you work in hospitality you basically have no life. You work minimum 12 hours a day (on small to normal days) and you can easily go up to 15-16 hours, and when it is New year or Christmas you don’t count your hours anymore. So I spent the last 15 years of my life working on week-ends, New Years, Christmas even on my birthdays. And it’s a world where you work while others enjoy their time. I’ve done that for a long time and I think I’m done now.

But it’s hard to move out of this industry and when this opportunity came to me I felt like I had to jump on it because I don’t know when it’ll happen again. So it is a wine company called Vintage Club that hired me to sell wines for private customers. So, it’s not that different from what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years, it is still something I love and I’m passionate about (giving advice, entertaining customers, holding wine events and wine testings etc…). But Vintage Club is a smaller company, more of a “family”style, and I have missed this kind of working environment a lot. I will have to learn lots of new things because it’s a side of the wine market that I don’t really know. Therefore I am so excited, it’s a new challenge for me!

Do you have a mentor or a model that acts like an inspiration for you?

Yes, the teacher I had at Tain-L’Hermitage school Mr. Pascal Boucher will always remain a mentor to me because he is the one that made all the passion in me growing. He inspired me a lot. The way I talk about wine, I took it from him and I have a lot of punchlines coming from him. It was back in 2005-2007 and since then I met other people that I would call mentors too, but they were not necessarily related to wine. There is the gentleman who brought me from Burgundy to Singapore, who taught me English, who taught me the culture and who let me grow. I owe a lot to this man and I don’t think I would have been able to be where I am now without his teaching.

Would you have any advice for those who want to become sommelier?

Yes of course. First of all, we have to make it straight. What exactly is a sommelier? I have a lot of people telling me they want to be sommelier. So, I tell them “Yeah great! Have you worked in a restaurant before?” “Oh no! I wanted to be sommelier because I like wine”… Sure but a sommelier is somebody who runs a team and the operations. So you can recite all the 51 Grands Crus of Alsace and all your Château Grands Crus of Bordeaux if you want, but if you’re not able to run a restaurant of 16 tables, and bring the right wine at the right table with the right temperature and the right bottle (and that requires a lot of preparation and organisation) you are useless. You have to understand that above anything else, a sommelier is someone who loves people, who’s here to serve them and who runs the operations.

Above anything else, a sommelier is someone who loves people, who’s here to serve them and who runs the operations.

Another rule, a sommelier must be humble. Those who carry a bottle around feeling powerful are a joke because at the end of the day you’re just opening a bottle of wine and serving it to the guest. And if the guest doesn’t want to hear you talking about wine you just don’t because you’re here to serve and that’s it. I think that some young sommeliers tend to forget this aspect. I feel like we’re facing the same phenomenon as in France 20 years ago; some sommeliers have a huge ego and feel like they’re better than any chefs or waiters. But no, it’s a team so everyone must work together.

Could you guide us through your favourite wines and wine pairings?

I don’t have any favourite wine, I enjoy too many things to pick one. But in Singapore, I really enjoy Peking duck served with a pancake and onions inside, it’s delicious. And I would pair it with a red Burgundy that has enough freshness and acidity because the fat of the skin and the fluffy pancake sometimes a bit flavoury need some acidity to refresh the palate and clean up. So I would rather go for a young vintage Pinot Noir from Burgundy and an appellation more on the fruity side like a Mercurey from Château de Chamirey. In Bourgogne everyone is going for big appellations that cost a bomb now. But Burgundy has so much more, a lot of amazing small appellations that no one talk about, and Mercurey is one of them.

Are there places that you would recommend for wine drinking?

Yes, there is Wine Revolution (RVLT), opened by 3 really passionate and knowledgeable Singaporean sommeliers that I respect a lot. And I love the place, it’s cool, it’s fun. Well, they drink wine out of stemless glasses … and I don’t like to drink wine from stemless glasses, but because it’s them I do it. They have very cool and unusual types of wine so every time I go there, I get surprised by something new and different. The music is fun, the decoration is fun and they break down the snobbish rules that wine has, they keep everything simple and straight forward.

Is there something that makes French wine different from the rest of the world?

This is a very long topic, way too big. But what I can say is that there are bad wines and good wines everywhere. French people are very good at making good wines but there are also excellent at making bad ones, that’s for sure.

So yes, French wines are different from other wines, but other wines are also different from French wines. That’s the beauty of wine and that’s what we call the terroir. The wine must taste like where it comes from and like the people who made it. Wine tastes like the soil, the weather and the philosophy of its wine-maker. That’s why it is so beautiful because each country and each region has its expression, that’s the reason why wine is so versatile, enjoyable and full of passion.

Wine tastes like the soil, the weather and the philosophy of its wine-maker.
French Shopping, Dining & Lifestyle guide in Singapore