The Diary: Champagne champ toasts a dream job

Helen MacKenzie and champagne, at Baldwins Omega restaurant, Brincliffe Hill, Sheffield.
Helen MacKenzie and champagne, at Baldwins Omega restaurant, Brincliffe Hill, Sheffield.
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“Too much of anything is bad,” so said Mark Twain. “But too much Champagne is just right.”

It is an opinion which might be shared by Helen MacKenzie.

She’s the Woodhouse Mill lass who has what many might consider the best job in Britain: she gets to sips champagne for a living.

The 44-year-old was, six months ago, appointed as the UK brand ambassador for Piper-Heidsieck, one of the five biggest champagne houses in the world. That means she travels the country hosting dinners and receptions, raising the drink’s profile, and trying to get it stocked in the best hotels and restaurants.

Tomorrow she’ll be opening a £500 bottle of vintage with the head honchos at Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s flagship London restaurant. Recently, she was popping corks at Ascot. And next week, over three whirlwind days in London and Edinburgh, she’ll be hosting 12 events as she guides award winning wine-maker Regis Camus, on a brief tour of Britain.

But today? Today she’s at Baldwins Omega banqueting hall in Brincliffe explaining to The Diary - amid tales of monthly trips to France and meeting celebrities like Eddie Izzard - that being a bubbles brand ambassador is actually a somewhat sobering existence. And certainly a whole lot of hard work.

“At the end of the day this is a job,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to make sure that when people think champagne they think Piper-Heideick. I can spend three or four nights a week away from home. But yes, there are worse things to do for a living.”

How much tasting does she do? Not as much as you might expect, as it turns out.

“It’s not an everyday thing by any means,” she says. She’ll often have a small glass when explaining why people should drink or stock the product. But, she says, she’s an expert at making that one glass last a long time.

She got the job in April. Before that she’d spent 11 years working for a couple of different companies as a wine and champagne salesperson. And long before that - back in 1990 - Helen, originally from Loughborough, arrived in South Yorkshire to take a job at Sheffield Theatres.

“I changed careers after a friend suggested I’d be good at sales,” she explains. “Like many people I ended up in wine by accident.”

In an ideal world Piper-Heidsieck would have wanted the ambassador to be based in London. “But I’m settled in Sheffield,” says Helen, who is single.

Fortunately bosses agreed that, since she’d be travelling so much, South Yorkshire would be a convenient places to be located. They offered her the role and she celebrated by having a glass of...well, work it out.

Her day to day routine, when she’s not away, sees her working from home. Amid planning events, preparing for meetings and making contacts, she also spends a few hours every week learning French. It’s not essential she speak the lingo but she goes over there so often she feels she should.

Her success so far has included getting the product stocked at The Champagne Bar at St Pancras where it will be the official drink of Christmas.

“That’s a big coup,” she explains. “People who go there are often arriving in London for a weekend. They want a glass of something nice. It’s nice to think they’ll be enjoying ours.”

And then, she’s finishing her own glass and soon dashing off, busy as ever. Cheers.