Gerard Basset MS
Gerard Basset obituary, The Times
January 18 2019
The Frenchman who became known as one of the foremost sommeliers in the world, and set up a multimillion-pound hotel business in Britain, first fell in love with his adopted country during a game of football.
He arrived in Liverpool to watch his home team Saint-Étienne as a 20-year-old in 1977. “The English girls were beautiful,” he said. He returned to find a job as a kitchen porter and then a waiter in a cheap hotel that brightened up dishes by dyeing its rice red, orange and green. Colleagues deferred to his wine knowledge simply because he came from France. “People thought I knew a lot [about wine]. I knew nothing.”
Over the course of four decades, Gerard “The Nose” Basset, as he came to be known, notched up a medley of wine qualifications. He was the only person to hold the Master of Wine qualification with the Master Sommelier, MBA Wine Business and MSc from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, as well as winning the World Sommelier Championship in 2010. His love of wine was so all-consuming it even dictated the name of his much-loved dog, Merlot. His son was named Romané after the Burgundian house.
With Basset’s neat black hair, clipped moustache and twinkling eyes, came his insistence that the chief quality of a sommelier was not knowledge and enthusiasm, but humility. The wine critic Jancis Robinson once described him as “the most gifted sommelier I have ever come across, in terms of both his knowledge and how he handles customers”.
In the 1990s Basset set up Hotel du Vin, which offered affordable French dining to market towns. His first hotel in Winchester shot to unexpected attention in 1995 during the month-long trial of Rosemary West, the serial killer, at Winchester Crown Court. Dozens of lawyers and journalists stayed and ate at the hotel, booking it out solidly. “The journalists who came told their friends about us, and reviews began coming in that were very positive,” Basset said. “We were completely full even months afterwards.” The hotel, which opened in half a dozen more spots, was one of the pioneers of the “boutique” movement with its offer of affordable luxury. “You couldn’t have your shoes cleaned and we wouldn’t park your car, but you would find a comfortable bed and wonderful food.”
Becoming a master of wine was the result of years of dedication. “The tests are gruelling, involving long questionnaires, blind tastings and on-the-spot exercises. Once you win, you can never enter again.” He believed wine tasting needed constant practice and judged several big shows a year. For one, the judges had to try 2,500 wines blind in three days, which meant tasting 100 to 150 wines a day. He trained like an athlete, eating carefully and sleeping as much as he could. He even spent time training himself mentally by working with a sports psychologist.
He was a fan of wines from Burgundy, Madeira and the Napa Valley and advocated lobster salad and champagne. However, he said his personal cellar was relatively small, with about 700 bottles. “If somebody said to me I could only have one more glass of wine, it would be a very old Madeira, perhaps from 1811 or 1822, both of which I have tasted.” He joked that the problem was that since many of the bottles were expensive he rarely had the right bottle in the house to share with a friend on a Sunday night.
Gerard Francis Claude Basset was born in Saint-Étienne, “not the most exciting town”, he said, in 1957. His father, Pierre René, was a draughtsman and his mother, Marguerite Marie-Louise, a midwife. She cooked homely dishes, jams and pastries, and her blackcurrant liquor, made from garden fruit, stuck in his mind.
After leaving school he trained as a chef. While working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in France, he realised he disliked the job. “There was always shouting,” he said. Instead, he moved to England. Speaking English with a strong French accent, his job searches were not always easy. In one interview, failing to understand what was implied by the question: “Do you have any criminal convictions?”, he wrote down, “Too difficult to explain.”
By 1988 he had a job as sommelier at Chewton Glen, a country house hotel in Hampshire. Here, he met his future wife, Nina, and they had soon moved in together. “It was two weeks,” she said. They had one son, now in his second year at King’s College London studying French and English literature.
Basset became friends with Robin Hutson, the manager, who suggested that they set up a hotel together. While they were opening the first Hotel du Vin, Nina was driven to distraction by Basset disappearing constantly when needed. Invariably he was found in the cellar with Hutson, discussing the merits of his latest oenological find. Basset insisted that their hotel was a place without snobbery. “If you wanted to have Coca-Cola, frankly we didn’t care. We didn’t want to scare people.”
He recalled the steep learning curve that followed. “It was the first time I heard words like ‘P & L’, ‘balance sheet’; all these things.” The business was helped by investment from Anita and Gordon Roddick, the founders of the Body Shop, and they opened six hotels. They then sold to MWB in 2004 for £66 million, which earned Basset £2.5 million after tax. As he said, it was “enough for us to feel comfortable, but not so much that we could ever think about not working again”.
He took an MBA in wine and spirits at Bordeaux. However, he soon missed working and in 2007 he and his wife set up TerraVina, a new hotel and restaurant, in the New Forest. “You can see the wild ponies,” he said. The cellar was disused and full of mousetraps.
While Hotel du Vin’s restaurant was French bistro, this one would be different. As he put it: “This time we were inspired by the Napa Valley, simple but good food, a pizza oven.” Business was adversely affected by the 2008 economic crash, but he kept making a small profit. He gave classes on sabrage, the art of opening a bottle of champagne with a sabre, a skill associated with Napoleon’s officers.
While his wife handled the daily affairs, he created the wine and food menu and worked on other projects. He toured the world for five months of the year visiting wineries, meeting producers and giving talks on wine, especially in China. “[China] is extremely interesting for wine. A small percentage of people with a lot of money are interested in art, luxury and wines.”
At TerraVina he would love to be behind the bar polishing glasses. From there he had a vantage point over the restaurant and could speak to guests at the same time.
He said recently he was ready for a new challenge. “I don’t know what it is yet,” he said. “I want to do something else that involves wine, but there’s still a piece missing so I can’t see the whole puzzle.”
Gerard Basset, OBE, master sommelier, was born on March 7, 1957. He died of cancer on January 16, 2019, aged 61
by Richard Siddle
The news yesterday that Gerard Basset had died after his short illness with cancer was met with great sadness, but also an outpouring of admiration, memories and tributes to one of the most respected, influential and clearly loved wine figures in the world. He was also one of the most decorated and unique in being able to have MW, MS, MBA and even an OBE after his name. Here, in our own personal tribute to Gerard, we share the interview we did with him in the late summer of 2017 that at the time marked 10 years since he and his wife, Nina, opened Hotel TerraVina. We also looked back over such a memorable life that touched and influenced so many people. Here’s to you Gerard…You’ll Never Walk Alone.
When we sat down with Gerard for this interview in August 2017 it was only a few weeks before he was diagnosed with cancer. As we all stop, reflect and pay tribute to this wonderful man, it is also an opportunity to remember and celebrate an extraordinary life and career that touched so many people. Here are his own personal memories of the many steps he had to take to make him the man, the colleague and the inspiration that we all now remember.
Nina Basset has shared these reflections on her husband: “Whilst we are devastated to have to say goodbye to Gerard for the last time, we draw strength from the kind messages that we have already received from the many people whose lives he touched. He fought a brave battle against cancer and we are comforted that he died at home surrounded by his family and that he is now at peace. Both Romané and I are profoundly grateful for the support we have received from our friends across the world, including the many in the wine and hospitality industries and to know that Gerard was so loved by all those who knew him.”
When you consider the illustrious career of arguably one of the world’s most influential sommeliers, then you would imagine it would be a romantic story about sipping wine in a famous French vineyard that sent Gerard Basset OBE, MW, MS, MBA, OIV MSc en route to the success he has subsequently had.
It was actually a cold, night in Liverpool on March 16, 1977 that was the inspiration for Basset to, at least, want to start a new life and career in the UK, rather than spend a life in hospitality or become a sommelier and hotelier.
It was the high-octane drama of seeing Liverpool come back from a seemingly impossible position to beat his beloved St Etienne, in one of most dramatic Quarter-Finals ever of the European Cup, that was to convince Basset that he wanted to make the UK his home.
A journey that eventually took him to the heart of the New Forest – many miles from Anfield and Liverpool – where he has firmly established himself as one of the country’s leading hoteliers and restaurateurs. Initially with Hotel du Vin, which he founded in 1994 in Winchester with his former colleague and managing director, Robin Huston, from Chewton Glen, where Basset had been head sommelier. Together they helped create a new style of boutique hotel, and were able to build up to a six-strong group before selling on to Malmaison in 2004.
It was then when he and his wife, Nina, were able to do their own thing with the award-winning Hotel TerraVina that they have run for the last decade. Today actually marks the hotel’s 10-year anniversary and whilst he is proud of what they have achieved to date, he believes the hotel’s best years lie ahead. “We still have many plans for what we can do here,” he says. “The next few years are going to important years for us and we have some plans to develop TerraVina. It’s time. It’s been 10 years so you need to make some changes, tweak the product and offering a little and have a bit of revamp.”
It was a pleasure to catch up with Basset, sitting on the beautifully appointed wooden terrace that sits looking down on the quiet TerraVina gardens. A spot more in keeping with an old colonial townhouse and typical of all the subtle design touches that make TerraVina such a unique, relaxed and memorable location.
Inspired by California
For Basset the inspiration for TerraVina actually lies in California and the kind of hospitality that he says is so common in the hotels and restaurants there.
It certainly shares the same charm, warm personality, professionalism, and attention to detail that have made Basset such a highly respected, and loved figure right around the world.
“We did not want people to come in and think we have just re-done Hotel du Vin. We wanted to use a lost of wood because of the forest and have an open kitchen like they do in Napa,” he says. “We wanted a modern, more Californian experience.”
He is also quick to point out most of the praise for TerraVina’s success should go to his wife, Nina, as she is more involved on a day-to-day basis, as Basset is involved in so many other projects both in the UK but around the world. “I would not be able to do so much if it was not for Nina,” he stresses.
In fact, when he is not being the host with the most at TerraVina he spends on average about five months of the year travelling the world still visiting wineries, meeting new producers and sharing his insights and love for wine. “It’s a good balance to have,” he says.
“It’s good from a financial point of view to have other revenue streams, but it’s also nice mentally to not always be doing the same thing. I travel a lot and can bring back ideas.”
He adds: “I designed my own range of glasses, in collaboration with Lehman Glass, and travel to Asia and the US with that. Some projects might just be once a year. I work with Decanter Magazine and a French magazine one or two weeks a year. I host trips with a French wine society and do some work for Sommelier International where I might do one or two weeks of tasting wines for them. But when you are away hosting trips you meet new people, and come up with new ideas.”
Gerard Basset introduces Mathias Camilleri, head sommelier of Five Fields, who is Moët UK Sommelier of the Year 2017.
Most of all he is helping guide and influence the next generation of great sommeliers with his role as the head of the technical committee and Master of Ceremonies for the prestigious Best Sommelier in the World competition, run by the ASI (Association de la Sommellerie Internationale), which run events around the world which cover Europe, Asia, the Americas and the overall world event.
“It’s a great thing to do. You travel, you meet a lot of people and as your name is out there, so you get other opportunities on the back of it.”
It is a role he takes incredibly seriously and sees him meticulously plan and present competitions that can take up many weeks of his year – all unpaid.
“It’s a big responsibility, it’s exciting but it can also be stressful because you don’t want things to go wrong and disadvantage one candidate over another, even by mistake. It’s not easy.”
He is also uniquely qualified to have such a role. Basset’s determination and desire to continuously challenge himself by taking part in more competitions and business qualifications is what sets him apart from his peers. The story of how he finally became World Sommelier of the year as recently as 2010 reads like the roller coaster ride of how an Olympic champion finally got that gold medal around their neck.
Try, and try again
Basset knows exactly what sommeliers are going through competing in world competitions.
In fact, it took Basset some 25 years of hard competition before finally getting his personal gold. “I started my first competition in 1985 and finished in 2010,” he recalls.
He says it actually got harder with every year as the standard of the competitors increased with each event.
“It’s like the Premiership football. The level now is probably a little higher than it was 20 years ago. Becoming a Master of Wine is more difficult than it was before. There are more countries participating, there are more wines, countries and vintages to know.”
When he first started competing in the mid-eighties there was arguably three or four countries from where the winner could come from. “When I was in Chile (in 2010) there was like 10 to 12 countries that could win and now there are 15 countries with really good candidates. It’s like the football World Cup. In the 1970s only a few teams could win it – compared to now.”
The current holder of the Best Sommelier in the World awards is the Swede, Arvid Rosengren, who is one of a number of strong contenders from across Scandinavia. In fact, they are so serious that their sommeliers attend regular training camps for participating candidates to go and hone their skills and mental strength.
It is why the sommelier world stands to attention when Basset takes to the floor to chair the proceedings for the latest world sommelier finals. For he has been there, battled, failed (in his eyes), fought back and finally come out on top as the world number one. He knows exactly what it is the contestants are going through and rather than make things even more difficult he is determined to help, support and be painstakingly fair to all candidates.
“I have done it several times. I have made my mistakes. I know exactly what a candidate feels like standing there on the stage and how stressful it is. I remember when Paolo Basso won in 2013 in Tokyo he said when he saw I was MC it relaxed him as he knew I would not be out to going to try and catch him out.”
I had the privilege of seeing Basset in action at the last world finals that took place in the intense, packed atmosphere of the grand theatre in Mendoza in Argentina. An audience that was disappointed not to see their local hero, Paz Levinson, make it to the final three, was soon completely in the thrall of Basset as he introduced each of the finalists and put them through a series of tests all played out on the main stage like a series of scenes in a live play. This was drama to (nearly) match that Quarter-Final at Anfield some 38 years later. Basset was meticulous. Carefully reading out each candidate’s instructions as clearly as possible. Always asking if they want him to repeat them. His attention to detail and professionalism would certainly inspire you to perform beyond expectations. “It is absolutely important to get it right and do it in a way that does not put any extra staff on the candidate.”
What it takes to be the best
It is fascinating to hear Basset’s assessment of what it takes to be a top sommelier. To be the world’s best it is not enough just to know your subject matter inside out. You need to be able to teach your body to go to another level of performance under intense pressure.
“It’s a bit like chess,” says Basset. “You don’t really need to be an athlete to win the world chess championship and spend hours in the gym, but you need to be fit.
“When I won the world championship (in 2010) I made sure I looked after my weight and was fit. It also makes you feel good about yourself.”
He also spent a lot of time training himself mentally. As well as reading a lot of motivational books he also worked with a sports psychologist.
Particularly after he went through what he says was the “terrible experience” of going to the world finals in Montreal in 2000 as the favourite and then failing to reach the final three. He put that down to not having the time to fully prepare as his son had just been born and he was writing a book, as well as dealing with the usual working pressures. “I was mentally exhausted going there and not as prepared as I would have liked,” he recalls.
Learn from experiences
It was not a mistake he wanted to make again. “I needed to analyse what had happened so that it would not happen again,” he says.
So on reading about how the new England football manager at the time, Sven Gőran Eriksson, had used spots psychologists to try and relax and work with the team – to stunning effects when they turned the tables on Germany to beat them famously 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier in Munich – he decided to employ one himself.
“I was fascinated by this. For the whole week before this game in Munich, Ericsson and the psychologists worked with the team to say ‘this is only a game, so just relax and go out and enjoy it’. “They did not talk about Three Lions or the Queen. They tried to take away all the pressure so that they had no fear. And the performance was transformed.
“It made total sense to me. It also made me realise that if I wanted to win this competition, it was not a question of doing the same thing again and again. So I talked to a sport psychologist about visualisation and rehearsing certain situations in your head, so it is like you have done it many times before. It made you think in a different way. I enjoyed it. It was very interesting.”
Basset’s determination to reach the top saw him compete in a further three world competitions, coming second twice in a row, in 2004 and 2007 (where he was equal second), before finally being crowned word champion in 2010.
MW, MS, MBA, MSC and World Sommelier award: Basset’s career grand slam
It has not just been sommelier competitions that Basset has been determined to achieve the highest level of performance. Education has also played an important part in his life and is still the only person in the world to be a Master of Wine, a Master Sommelier and have an MBA in wine. Earlier this summer he went a step further and completed the MSc in wine management from the OIV (Organisation de la Vigne at du Vin).
With that even Basset seems finally satisfied. “I have achieved my career Grand Slam,” he says.
Before quickly pointing out he plans to carry on doing more modules under the OIV scheme and even has his eye on doing the WSET sake course.
He also insists all his various qualifications does not necessarily make him a specialist in any one area of wine, but prefers to see himself as a “well rounded generalist”.
Basset is very happy to act as a mentor and head of ceremonies for future world sommeliers competitions and has recently signed up to another four years at least.
Managing his sommelier team
Gerard Basset’s success has seen him featured across the national press like for this shoot for The Daily Telegraph
Basset’s focus on the next generation of sommeliers is very much how he runs his own sommelier team at TerraVina. It is a little surprising considering his profile and knowledge that he leaves the actual wine buying to his three-strong team, including the head sommelier. His only input being to give them guidelines and a framework to select from. Clearly, he is still involved behind the scenes, but it is that delegation of duties and responsibility that he says is vital.
“I always leave the sommeliers to do their own selection. Hotel du Vin included. We work with about 10 suppliers, six or seven regularly and then we use specialists who we might order from once a year. People like Liberty, Enotria, George Barbier, Thorman Hunt and Boutinot we use regularly.
“You want to work with people who are serious. It’s good to build relationships. If you change suppliers all the time you lose the rapport and their support. If you are buying wine from a supplier on a regular basis then it is logical that they will help you when you ask, say, for wine for a special dinner.”
When it comes to buying wine then price is very much secondary to quality, stresses Basset. “But if we have three wines of the same quality, then we will look at the price.”
When looking to shake up certain parts of the list he will get his team to taste blind through a whole series of wines and then pick out the best quality they can find. If they feel the second or third wine offers the best price and value on the list then that is the wine he would urge them to go for. “It may not be our number one choice, but if it is the number two and at a better price then that is fine.”
He is also not obsessed about getting the exact right vintage for every wine. If a supplier has run out, then he understands. “It’s not a problem, we are very flexible on that.”
“The UK has a lot of very good wine merchants. They have been around for a long time because they know what they are doing. They are good at selling wine and they are good at looking after their customers.”
In fact, there are some wine merchants that he is quite happy to take a case of wine that he has not tried because he trusts their palates to find them wines he likes.
Day to day
The majority of the wines sold at Hotel TerraVina sits between £30-£45…wines that Basset says will encourage guests to come back
Basset is also quite candid about the difficulties of running a rural restaurant and hotel outside of the parallel universe of London. “The market has never really recovered since the 2008 recession. It has always been a tight economy and is even more now with Brexit,” add Basset.
The New Forest is also not on the main tourist trail for overseas visitors coming to the UK. Instead he relies very much on local trade, particularly at lunchtime in the restaurant. As for hotel guests, it is very much British couples looking to explore the New Forest.
He sees Terravina as being a more “mid-market” alternative to the more expensive nearby, Chewton Glen, where his emphasis is “offering very good value”.
Despite its 10 years, it is a constant challenge to keep re-inventing its offer. It is, for example, currently offering a special overnight stay for those travelling down to take luxury cruises from nearby Southampton, with the added incentive of leaving your car at Terravina’s car park for the duration of your trip.
It is why he ensures the wine list is pitched at the right level to be affordable for all its guests. He estimates around a quarter of his guests will be very into their wine, but the majority are looking for a quality dinner and night out “and will trust us with our wine selection”. It means the average core bottle price sits at around £30 to £45, which goes up to around £80 to £90 on a Saturday with a lot more wines sold by the glass.
“We want our sommeliers to sell wine that people can afford so that they want to come back. That’s the most important thing.”
And return they do.
As our chat draws to a close he shares one final fascinating insight with me. Outside of wine, the one individual who stands as a mentor for him is the former French president Francois Mitterand. Not, he quickly adds, that he ever voted for him. He admires more for his life story that saw him bounce back from numerous defeats and disappointments and to keep going forward.
Which in Mitterand’s and Basset’s case has meant reaching the very top of their professions.