The Savoy Grill’s top sommelier Christopher Cooper on how his tenacity paid off

Rebecca Hobson

Bex Hobson

Gordon Ramsay’s top sommelier Christopher Cooper will be giving a tutored wine tasting at this year’s festival. Find out how he became one of the country’s leading wine experts…

Christopher Cooper ©Sarah Bayliss

Ten years ago Christopher Cooper was living in Perth working for a microbrewery and finishing a degree in environmental sciences. Five years later he became head sommelier at Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill.

He didn’t have a wine background – hadn’t grown up running through vineyards stealing sips of burgundy at the dinner table – but he did have a goal and a good deal of tenacity.

“Nobody tells you that you can become a wine expert at school,” explains Christopher when I interview him just before the Saturday lunchtime rush at the Savoy Grill. “But in France, Spain and Italy, a career as a sommelier is seen as right and honourable – yet here it’s not.”

Studying in Perth, it was Christopher’s sideline working in a microbrewery and restaurant that shaped his future rather than his studies. Having tasted different wines and beers, he decided to pursue a career as a wine expert instead.

“When I go back to the UK I decided I wanted to carry on, but I wanted to learn from the very best. So I rang up Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant during service and spoke to the then head sommelier, Ronan Sayburn.”

(Sayburn is a “Master Somellier”, one of 180 in the world, and has represented Britain in sommelier competitions. Ringing up Sayburn during service is a bit like interrupting an Olympic athlete during training. Madness.)

“I spoke to him and said. ‘Look, I’m English, and I want a job as a sommelier. I’m really enthusiastic and I want to know more, but I don’t know very much. I know about sauvignon, chardonnay, I know what a pinot noir is over a cabernet and that’s about it really.”

Christopher’s daring approach paid off. Incredibly, Sayburn listened and told him to come in and start out on the floor in an entry-level position. That’s where the easy bit ended. Over the next five years Christopher worked his way from being a wine porter – fetching and delivering wines to the customer’s table – to being one of the UK’s top sommeliers.

“When I started I had loads of French sommeliers screaming at me, I had to learn pretty quickly. I was running up and down the stairs fetching wines for them and didn’t have a clue what was going on, but slowly I started to fill in the blanks and started to understand why certain wines taste the way they do.

“You work crazy hours but you also taste lots of amazing wines.”

Presumably Christopher’s background in environmental sciences helped him understand the science behind wine making, helped in “fill in the blanks”, but he doesn’t cite this as being the secret to his success.

He says that it is his ability to translate the flavours in a wine into words easily interpretable by the customer that made him stand out. “I have the natural ability to speak exactly what’s on my mind, what’s on my tongue.

“I don’t use the flowery nonsense that lots of sommeliers tend to use, I’m a normal guy. I’m not flouncey, pushy or flowery. For me it’s just talking very normally about normal wines.”

As for Abergavenny Food Festival, the tutored tasting he’s giving with Tom Harrow (WineChap, see previous post), Deconstructing the Winelist, will be anything but normal. “I’ll be picking the wines, talking about how great they are, and Tom we’ll probably be a bit more devil’s advocate, he’ll be a bit more critical – they’ll be plenty of banter,” Christopher says laughing.

What about his favourite wines then? If he could drink only one wine for the rest of his days what would that be?

“I have a real passion for German rieslings, I could drink those all the day… But then that would mean ruling out champagne – how could I do that?! How could you not have a glass of champagne, I mean for goodness sake!

“To be honest I’d probably just throw it all in the bin and say, ‘give me a pint of real ale!’”

You heard it here first!

Bex Hobson is Blogger-at-large for the Abergavenny Food Festival

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