The woman who decides what wine French presidents drink

Virginie Routis, is the first woman ever to be given the keys to the legendary wine cellars of the Elysée Palace, home to 14,000 bottles of fine wine.

The woman who decides what wine French presidents drink
Virginie Routis,

It came as a shock. But Virginie Routis learned very early that one of the obstacles she was going to have to overcome to become a top wine waiter was sexism.

The soft spoken sommelier was working in one of Britain's best restaurants when a man threw the wine list back at her.

“I want to talk to a man,” he barked.

“He didn't want to talk to me never mind have me look after the wine,” Routis recalled. “The maitre d' had to serve him.”

To say that Routis, the first woman to ever be given the keys to legendary cellars of the Elysee Palace, has had the last laugh is something of an understatement.

She not only presides over the 14,000 bottles of finest French wine beneath the French president's official residence, but she has also been responsible for one of the biggest shake-ups of the closely guarded national treasure in decades.

The 38-year-old is also responsible for serving — and impressing — the monarchs and heads of state who regularly dine at the Elysee.

French President Francois Hollande gave her “carte blanche” to serve what wines she thought best to with his chef Guillaume Gomez's menus.

And she is spoiled for choice from the Elysee's staggering collection which goes from mythic names like Cheval Blanc, Latour, Batard-Montrachet de Joseph Drouhin, Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet to high quality wines from all of France's wine regions.

'I like to surprise'

“When we are entertaining a head of state, we generally go for safe bets like a white burgundy, or a grand Bordeaux red, but for lunches we can range out to Alsace, Cahors, Corsica” and elsewhere, she said.

“I like to play on surprise, and I know the President is very open to that,” she added.

Routis was only 30 when she took over at the Elysee and had to deal with the rather challenging prospect of Nicolas Sarkozy, the chocoholic former French president who does not drink wine.

Luckily, his wife the singer Carla Bruni did and it was with her that Routis would discuss the choice of wine.

Although Routis admitted that as a woman she had to fight for her place in the very masculine world of wine waiting, now up to a fifth of sommeliers in France are women.

'Women better tasters'

“It is much more straightforward” than before, said Routis, who points to Estelle Touzet, sommelier at the Ritz, or Marlene Vendramelli, who was named the best young sommelier in France in 1993, for helping to break the glass ceiling.

In fact, she argues women may be better at the job.

“I think we have a more sensitive palate and we have perhaps a more simple way of explaining wines, which is less technical than men. But it is good to have a mixed team,” she said, forever the diplomat.

In 2013 Routis sold off some 1,200 bottles from the temperature-controlled Elysee cellar — which is protected by an armoured door — in a major reorganisation of its stock.

With a budget last year of 170,000 euros ($178,000) — of which 50,000 euros comes from auctioning off select bottles — she has mostly used the money to buy young wine to lay down.

Of all the state dinners and banquets she has had to deal with, Routis said the one that marked her most was the visit in 2014 of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Having begun her career in England at French chef Raymond Blanc's Manoir aux Quat'Saisons near Oxford, she knew to some degree what was expected but she admitted that it was still “one of the most stressful” dinners.

For the occasion she served a Sauternes, Chateau d'Yquem 1997 as an aperitif, Haut-Brion 1990 red Bordeaux and a Pol Roger champagne, cuvee Winston Churchill, in a nod to Britain's wartime leader's favourite tipple.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Cold snap ‘could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent’

A rare cold snap that froze vineyards across much of France this month could see harvest yields drop by around a third this year, France's national agriculture observatory said on Thursday.

Cold snap 'could slash French wine harvest by 30 percent'
A winemaker checks whether there is life in the buds of his vineyard in Le Landreau, near Nantes in western France, on April 12th, following several nights of frost. Photo: Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP

Winemakers were forced to light fires and candles among their vines as nighttime temperatures plunged after weeks of unseasonably warm weather that had spurred early budding.

Scores of vulnerable fruit and vegetable orchards were also hit in what Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie called “probably the greatest agricultural catastrophe of the beginning of the 21st century.”

IN PICTURES: French vineyards ablaze in bid to ward off frosts

The government has promised more than €1 billion in aid for destroyed grapes and other crops.

Based on reported losses so far, the damage could result in up to 15 million fewer hectolitres of wine, a drop of 28 to 30 percent from the average yields over the past five years, the FranceAgriMer agency said.

That would represent €1.5 to €2 billion of lost revenue for the sector, Ygor Gibelind, head of the agency’s wine division, said by videoconference.

It would also roughly coincide with the tally from France’s FNSEA agriculture union.

Prime Minister Jean Castex vowed during a visit to damaged fields in southern France last Saturday that the emergency aid would be made available in the coming days to help farmers cope with the “exceptional situation.”

READ ALSO: ‘We’ve lost at least 70,000 bottles’ – French winemakers count the cost of late frosts