Fifty years ago this week, a young George Bergier started work at The Midland Hotel in Manchester, embarking on a remarkable career in the city that would see him take on numerous sommelier and management roles at bars, hotels and restaurants in the city. Since 2008, he has been an ever-present fixture at the city’s Victorian Chop House Company.
As friends gather to celebrate his career on Wednesday 14 February, we asked a handful of them for their memories of George Bergier: Cold War defector (born Jerzy Bonkowski), long jump champion, current president of L’Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne – and named Industry Legend in last year’s Imbibe Personality of the Year Awards.
Roger Ward, MD, The Victorian Chop House Company
‘One of the most well-known and well-loved people in the city…’
‘I am proud to say that George is one of my best friends. He is very much one of life’s gentlemen. He has an old world courtesy and charm that sets him apart. Professionally, he is as experienced and knowledgeable as you would expect given his age and CV.
‘But, without doubt, the quality that makes him who he is comes from his amazing gene pool. He’s super-cool, handsome and is blessed with truly hollow legs. What else would you want in an old-school maître d’ or sommelier?
‘George and I were once walking across town to find a quiet bar to discuss an attractive job offer he had received from a very prestigious operation in the Midlands. In other words, whether he should stay or go.
‘On this walk we encountered maybe 20 different customers. Each expressed their greetings and their kindness in their own different ways. Pretty much every one of them shook his hand. Half a mile later he realised that he was one of the most well-known and well-loved working people in the city. He stayed because he is friends with his customers and they enrich his life in so many ways.
‘One summer’s evening last year, he was walking home from a fantastic night at the wonderful Bar San Juan. We had enjoyed some beautiful Juan Gil Black 15% Monastrell. Enormous wines.
‘Hollow legs Bergier tells me he fell over on the way back, for the first time in his life ever. He reckons. To use one of his catchphrases: I was chuffed to buggery. George never shows that he has been drinking… until the morning after. Then the mints are the give-away.’
Alexandra Hirst, marketing implementation manager, north, Matthew Clark
‘He’s a legend… and a complete gentleman…’
‘The word “legend” is over-used, but George Bergier is one in the truest sense, and the complete gentleman.
‘From stumbling upon the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc in someone’s kitchen in Friuli, to learning the pleasures of world-class Pinot Noir (“smells like chicken shit, but tastes like nectar”), my short time working with George has been an education and a privilege.
‘George’s passion for hospitality through great food and wine is blatant after just seconds in his company, whether hearing his tales of worldwide wine travel, exceptional dining experiences, meeting industry icons, or even something quirky he’s tried in Salut!
‘I’ve had the honour of taking George on his first visit to a Sicilian winery, not to mention learning everything there is to know about Rioja in Rioja, and champagne in Champagne, from this inimitably inspirational class act of our industry.
‘Congratulations Mr Bergier on an astounding 50 years… here’s to the next 50!’
Diane Gonzalez, business/brand development manager UK, Champagne Jacquart and Montaudon
‘I could listen to him for hours…’
‘George is passionate about his job, always excited about new wines to try, even after 50 years. But what struck me the most is his genuine, authentic and very kind personality.
‘I first met George in Manchester at Sam’s Chop House two years ago. It does not happen every day, but I felt straight away a great connection and thought I had met someone very special. I could listen to him for hours talking about the wine regions he has been to, the wines he has tasted and life in general.
‘He knows everybody here in Manchester and everybody knows and respects his work. I have not known him for a long time, but I feel I have known him for much longer – he has this warmth and kind heart which, when you add to it his Polish charm, you can only deeply care for him.’
Richard Kwiecien, managing director, Eclectic Hotel Collection
‘A charming old grey fox who can talk for hours…’
‘George has pushed me to develop more sommeliers within my business. We have now got 15 fully-trained sommeliers on different levels.
‘He is well-known and respected within Eclectic Hotels. Staff will have that apprehension when he dines in the hotels (like a hotel inspector) and will do their best to make sure food and drinks are served properly. I like this about him – I can always rely on a critical eye with constructive comments.
‘I always take George with me when I attend some networking or very boring event. I run out of conversation after an hour because I do not like small talk, but George can talk for hours. That’s a great skill and very helpful for me.
‘He’s a charming old Polish grey fox – a great guy and I am proud to be attending his 50th event… not sure my wife will be happy when I get home!’
Main pic credit: Paul Wolfgang Webster