A shorter version of this article was published in the Masi Foundation’s Le Venezie magazine.
The wine world doesn’t often have cause to be grateful to football, but were it not for the so-called “beautiful game” Gerard Basset might never have moved to England, discovered wine and his own talent for it, changed the way this country offers hospitality to travellers and given the English the reflected glory of being able to claim the world’s most qualified wine professional as our own. Basset, who is so charming and modest you might suppose he had barely a qualification to his name, is in fact the only Master of Wine (MW) who also possesses both a Master Sommelier and a Wine MBA qualification; he has also won the World Sommelier Championships. Best Sommelier in the World hardly seems the title for someone with is the opposite of boastful.
Basset, born in Saint-Etienne near Lyon and an avid supporter of the home team to this day, came over for an away game against Liverpool, 40 years ago. “I was 20 years old, delivering washing machines and TVs,” he remembers. “I thought England was just a place where people drank tea all the time and it never stopped raining, but in fact I really liked Liverpool.” He came back to work, and at 26 moved to England permanently and became a waiter, with a view to a career as a restaurant manager. Everyone in his new workplace assumed he knew all about wine because he was French, but in fact, he had grown up being served a little wine in his water (“it’s very refreshing”) but with nothing decent on the table. “Wine then was like salt,” he says. “You don’t look closely or get excited about different kinds unless you’re really geeky about salt, you just put it on your food”. A couple of times a year, his parents would buy something half-decent but other than that, they drank plonk – which was hardly the view of France from across the Channel. “There was a catering student who was moonlighting as a waitress a couple of evenings a week,” Gerard recalls. “She’d attended a lecture on wine and didn’t understand what noble rot was. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about! I had to quickly buy a book so I could answer her questions.”
And that was how a Frenchman began his wine education in, of all places, England. He ended up Head Sommelier at luxury Hampshire hotel Chewton Glen, where he got on so well with manager Robin Hutson that when the latter decided to venture out on his own, he asked Gerard to be his business partner. “But I had no money! I had a 100% mortage on a flat I’d bought for £52,000 that was now worth £34,000. So I actually had less than no money. But Robin said don’t worry, I’ve got shareholders.”
They went down the road to Winchester, which had wealthy inhabitants and a brand new motorway, and opened a hotel that would start a revolution – although they didn’t realise that at the time. Hotel du Vin was informal but never basic; the rooms were comfortable, with fresh milk in the minibar, quilts and power showers, and the food and drink were, of course, fantastic. It was 1995. They would surely have succeeded anyway, but they got help from an unlikely source: a murderess. The trial of serial killer Rosemary West began just as they opened, in the Crown Court round the corner from the hotel, and the journalists reporting the trial kept them booked solid for months. “We had 13 bedrooms but had to keep one for ourselves as we had no night porter yet,” Gerard recalls. “Two we reserved for holidaymakers but the others were booked out by journalists and they told their colleagues in food and wine about us. It’s terrible, because it was an awful case, but we profited from it.” By the time he and Robin sold to rival chain Malmaison a decade later, they had six hotels. Gerard and his wife Nina opened TerraVina, a small hotel in the New Forest, in 2007; they have just relaunched it as a boutique B&B called Spot in the Woods.
Meanwhile, he was amassing a preposterous number of qualifications and awards – from his MW and MS to Wine Personality of the Year, Industry Legend, an OBE for services to hospitality in 2011, and a slew of Best Taster gongs. He loved the challenge of competitions, he says – “being able to compete really gave me the incentive to learn and to improve. It’s like a sport, you need to practice all the time” – and he was fascinated by the way the wine industry was continually evolving. “In the late 1980s everybody loved the exuberance of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; in the 1990s we all wanted full-bodied reds that were rich, rounded and quite extracted. Fashions change but the quality just carries on improving.” Sure, he admits, you can still find awful wine if you really try, but there’s much less of it, and “the technology improves, there are fewer and fewer faulty wines and people are becoming much more knowledgeable.”
He can, of course, take some credit for this expansion of knowledge, via both his own career and the many top sommeliers he has mentored, from Xavier Rousset, who started London’s 28-50 chain of wine bars, to Ronan Sayburn, who is CEO of the Court of Master Sommeliers and Head of Wine at London’s pioneering private wine club 67 Pall Mall. He has also helped to cut through some of the wine world’s excessive formality; just as the Hotel du Vin chain replaced starch with comfort, so Gerard’s style of dining stays focussed on the diner’s pleasure. “Wine is convivial, something to enjoy,” he says firmly. “I don’t want to impose anything. If a table want to drink Madiran with Dover sole, why shouldn’t they? You can offer the benefit of your knowledge but only to people who want it. I always tell young sommeliers not to insist that people have this or that. Some will love wine but some will just want to have fun with their friends, and your job is to help them and not to try to be clever.” And yet, he is one of the world’s top talents at food and wine matching. He is simply a great sommelier: he understands that the dining experience, however elevated, is not supposed to be about him, unless he is the customer.
He is humble, but not self-effacing. He is proud of his MW “because I’m not academic, and those are exams that some people who have been to university don’t pass. And I’m proud of becoming World Champion. I’d come second three times, and was starting to think I’d never get it!” He recognises what the Hotel du Vin chain achieved, and he is also delighted to have been awarded the 37th International Civilta’ Del Vino Prize (International Wine Culture Prize) by Masi. He waxes lyrical about the three days spent at their winery – “They were amazing, we were so well looked after, and the food and wine were sensational!” One of the wine-world evolutions he is enjoying is the evolving attitude to Italian wine: “Once, it was all about Tuscany and Piedmont, but now there’s an understanding of how great the wines of the Veneto can be.” He thinks Valpolicella is still underrated, like so many wines that were beloved in the 1980s. “Beaujolais, Muscadet: people don’t realise how good they are… but they’re all coming back, as they deserve to.” I can’t resist asking: what would he serve with a Masi Amarone? “Probably a slow-cooked meat that is quite tender and rich, like a beautiful stew of wild boar or beef…” But as usual, he refuses to be prescriptive. “If it’s summer, you’ll want something lighter. The most important thing is that the company is good: nobody stops to analyse the wine when they are having a great evening, and that’s just as it should be.” Gerard Basset has dedicated his life to ensuring that people do indeed have a great evening, and so they have, in their thousands, thanks to his charm and expertise. Even for a man as humble as this one, that is surely something of which to be very proud indeed.