Gerard Basset MW MS OBE, the French-born British sommelier who conquered the world of wine, has died.
In a long and glittering career, Gerard was named UK Sommelier of the Year, Best Sommelier in Europe and, in 2010, Best Sommelier of the World. He was a Master of Wine and a Master Sommelier and held a Wine MBA. In 2011 he was awarded an OBE for services to hospitality and in 2013 he was named Decanter’s Man of the Year.
Born in 1957, Gerard came from a home that was far from warm and hospitable. In his yet-unpublished memoir, he recalls growing up in the industrial town of Saint-Etienne, with parents who were violently at odds with one another. Gerard left school at 16 and held a succession of unrewarding jobs—delivering washing powder, working in a hardware store—from which he was often sacked.
Passionate about football, he decided to move to the UK after visiting Liverpool for a football match. He first found a temporary job as a kitchen porter on the Isle of Man and then a job as a waiter at the Crown Hotel, Lyndhurst—a job he almost didn't get, because the form asked him “What are your criminal convictions?” Assuming that he was being asked for his opinion about the justice system, he wrote “It would be too long to explain”, which the manager took as a sign that Gerard was hiding a criminal past.
That hurdle overcome, Gerard got the job and soon found himself in love with fine dining. He pestered chefs for information, attended cooking school in France, and even chased down the window dresser at Selfridges to find out how they had folded the napkins on display. During this period, he also fell in love with wine and began studying and entering sommelier competitions.
In 1988 he was head hunted to work as Head Sommelier at Chewton Glen in New Milton, one of England’s top hotels. While working there, he met his future wife Nina, who was to play an instrumental role in his future successes. That was also the year he won the UK Sommelier of the Year, and set his sights on the Best Sommelier of the World.
In 1993 he was approached by Robin Hutson and asked if he would join a new venture—a hotel in Winchester, which was eventually known as the Hotel du Vin. After finding a suitable building and refurbishing it, the team opened the day after their opening party. “That first day of trading was the hardest working day of my life. Lunch was a nightmare, even though we only had half of the restaurant taken,” Gerard later recalled, adding that a number of guests complained, with one telling him the new restaurant “was a complete joke”.
It may have been a rough beginning, but a glowing review soon had the restaurant bursting with patrons. Not only that, but the hotel had opened just as the trial of Rosemary West began at the court a few streets away, and so the new business found itself catering for the numerous journalists in town.
Robin Hutson and Gerard went on to expand the Hotel du Vin concept, opening hotels across England. Many fledgling sommeliers flocked to work with Gerard, who became known not just for the depth of his knowledge and willingness to teach, but also for his kindness and generosity.
Throughout, Gerard continued to enter sommelier competitions. The prize he most wanted—Sommelier of the World—eluded him, though he tried many methods to improve his performance, from working with an acting coach to teaching himself to draw maps from memory.
Finally, he achieved his goal in Chile, 2010, winning the Sommelier of the World title at the age of 53.
Despite having left school at a young age, Gerard loved studying and had an astonishing array of qualifications, including the WSET Diploma, the Master of Wine, the Master Sommelier, a Wine MBA, and the OIV MSc in Wine Management. He was also awarded every honour the wine industry can bestow, including Caterer Magazine’s Special Catey Award 2010; the International Wine Challenge’s Wine Personality of the Year 2010; Harpers Wine & Spirits’s Wine Personality of the Year 2011, and Imbibe magazine’s Industry Legend 2011.
After selling Hotel du Vin, Nina and Gerard opened a new hotel in New Forest, Hotel TerraVina. Ten years later, in 2017, Hotel TerraVina became Spot in the Woods.
That same year, Gerard was diagnosed with cancer—which failed to slow him down. He was still regularly collecting awards, speaking and teaching. Reflecting back, he was immensely proud of seeing how sommeliers he had trained flourished and went on to great things.
“Being so deeply immersed in wine and hospitality opened doors to a world I couldn’t have imagined being part of," he wrote in the epilogue to his memoirs. "My efforts to improve my wine knowledge and skills in order to serve other people, to choose wines that would take their meal to another level, to make them comfortable and give them a night – or a holiday – that they would remember for the rest of their lives, repaid me many, many times over. “
Gerard is survived by his wife Nina and his son Romané.
Gerard’s memoir will be published by Unbound after a crowdfunding campaign, which opened this week. The book details not just his triumphs, but also his working methods and approach, and will be of great help to aspiring wine professionals. Please contribute by visiting Unbound.