They came from Hong Kong and America, from France and London. They came from Morocco and the US, from Canada and Australia. They came from Michelin-starred restaurants and wineries; from trade bodies and wine shops. They came with wheelchairs and pushchairs; they came on planes and trains, cars and motorbikes. And they came in huge numbers. But most of all, they came because they cared.
Under glowering summer skies, in his adopted city of Winchester, members of the wine trade, educators, journalists, friends and dozens of sommeliers – from the UK and abroad – gathered to pay their final respects to Gerard Basset MS MW MSc, MBA OBE.
Was he the most famous sommelier in the world? Probably. Was he the most respected? Quite possibly. Was he the most loved? Almost certainly.
This serial accumulator of qualifications, winners’ medals and accolades – possibly the only person to have more letters after his name than in it – was a legend, both professionally and personally.
His passing at the start of this year was not unexpected – Basset had been battling cancer for a while – but it was still a shock. However inevitable, a wine trade and hospitality world without his twinkly-eyed presence and extraordinary expertise still seemed unthinkable.
Even now, six months after his death, mourners were shaking their heads in rueful disbelief, as though struggling to accept the reality of his absence.
‘When I hold a glass of wine up to the light, I see my father’s smile and twinkly eyes... I want you to do the same’
As well as paying our respects for all his undoubted achievements, for the 600 guests who packed out Winchester’s grand old cathedral, Friday 14 June was also a chance for all of us to come to terms with the sad reality that one of the greats of our industry was gone.
There were touching tributes from Jancis Robinson MW and from Gerard’s son, Romané. ‘When I hold a glass of wine up to the light, I see my father’s smile and twinkly eyes,’ the latter told the packed and emotional cathedral. ‘I want you to do the same.’
And yet perhaps the story that most captured the essence of the man was told by the lady who came to help Gerard through his final months. Apparently, as his health failed and the end drew near he agonised about the fact that he felt he should have done more to help his fellow men. This, despite the fact that in his 30 years in hospitality he has recruited, trained, educated and inspired dozens of young sommeliers to be the best they can be.
Yet he clearly never saw anything exceptional in this. One of the most selfless people in the wine world was agonising, as the end drew near, about the fact that he could have helped more people. For Gerard Basset, as Canon Roland Riem pointed out, no amount of help and inspiration of others would ever have been enough.
It was a reminder of the generosity of spirit that we have lost with his passing. Because for all his undoubted expertise in wine – and he was a famously voracious devourer of information – Gerard Basset was not really about wine at all – he was about people. And today the people came out in force to honour his name; a tribute to his knowledge and achievements, yes. But most of all to his unfailing kindness, generosity and humanity.
This is why his legacy will live on long after the man himself is gone. And if you drink a glass of wine tonight, please do one thing: hold it to the light and remember his smile.