The wine world and the UK on-trade in particular are in mourning following the announcement of the death of Gerard Basset MS MW MBA OBE.
The godfather of British sommeliers passed away at home yesterday after a 15-month battle with oesophageal cancer.
Without a doubt one of the most influential, respected and beloved figures in the on-trade, his death leaves a giant hole in the world of sommeliering. There will be grief from San Francisco to Sydney, but most of all in the New Forest, Hampshire, where he made his home in the UK with his wife Nina and son Romané.
The word ‘legacy’ is bandied around too often in obituaries, but in the case of Gerard Basset it seems strangely inadequate. He achieved a quite extraordinary amount in his 61 years. Qualifying as a Master Sommelier or a Master of Wine is notoriously difficult, and beyond the scope of many who try. Basset attained both in less than ten years (1989 and 1998 respectively). He followed this up for good measure with an MBA in Wine Business.
Throughout this period he was also competing successfully. He won two UK Sommelier of the Year competitions, the Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe in 1996, and regularly represented the UK in the coveted pinnacle of all somm comps, Meilleur Sommelier du Monde.
Famously, excruciatingly, he came second three times, despite on the last occasion his service round being so effortlessly brilliant that it brought a standing ovation from the normally undemonstrative judges. But finally in Chile in 2010 – at what he had already sworn was to be his last attempt – he won. It was no fluke. The years of experience and the meticulous preparation – right down to employing a memory coach – left nothing to chance.
‘The World’s Best Sommelier Works in Britain’, as The Independent put it, almost incredulously. It was entirely fitting that he received an OBE the following year.
So prolific was Basset in terms of qualifications and first-place finishes, that it’s easy to forget that he also had a day job. He co-founded the Hotel du Vin, setting up the first venue in Winchester in 1994, and seeing it grow to six outlets before selling it to Malmaison for £66m ten years later. In 2007, he opened the boutique gastro hotel TerraVina in the New Forest with his wife, Nina.
It’s hard to believe for anyone who’s known this most urbane of individuals, but Basset was a rebellious teenager. He left home at 16 without qualifications and fell into catering almost by accident. The decision to settle in the UK, too, owed as much to chance as planning.
In 1977, he came to see a football match and decided to stay on, working as a dishwasher to pay his way. He returned to France to do a catering course and three years of work experience, then came back to Britain in 1983 to work in restaurants. Though he’d initially trained as a chef, he was now a maître d’, specialising as a sommelier in 1987.
It’s perhaps the slightly aimless years of his early career that gave him his famous energy and determination.
‘I didn’t do enough when I was young because I’d never had qualifications,’ he admitted to Imbibe in an interview in 2010. ‘Once I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to get some [success]. There was a snobbery in the British wine trade that if you didn’t have a MW you were nothing, so I thought “fine, I’ll do a Master of Wine then”.’
Basset, rather harshly, rated himself for creativity, talent and business acumen at no higher than 6.5 out of 10. But he scored himself at 9.5/10 for drive. And that same dislike of laziness and complacency – coupled with a nurturing personality and an incredible willingness to share his knowledge and experiences – made him the best sommelier mentor in the UK.
The list of alumni who have worked with or under him, or been tutored by him, and gone on to become top somms – competition winners and Masters Sommeliers - is extraordinary. Xavier Rousset, Laura Rhys, Laurent Richet, Henri Chapon, Corinne Michot, Claire Thevenot, Dimitri Mesnard, Tanguy Martin, Franck Massard… these are influential characters across the trade, trained in the Basset way, and ensuring that his passion, knowledge and ethos continue.
‘He changed the game for sommeliers in the UK and his legacy will go on for a long time,’ as Xavier Rousset MS put it.
And it is what he enabled others to achieve, perhaps, as much as the incredible litany of achievements that he managed for himself that elevated him to the legendary status that he enjoyed. But that he did it always with great good humour, wit and humbleness is the reason he was not just universally respected, but universally loved.