Like so many people in the wine world, and I do mean the world, I am deeply saddened to hear of the untimely death earlier today of Gérard Basset OBE, MW, MS and MBA. His website is modest in describing him as "without question one of the greatest wine professionals of a generation": he was, after all, the only person to hold the Master of Wine, Master Sommelier and MBA Wine Business qualifications, not to mention a host of other accolades. Perhaps what many people don't realise is how long he was at the top of his game – he was already Britain's most decorated sommelier in 1991 – and he reached those heights from a modest background and not much education. I interviewed him in 1991 for a feature in The Sunday Times on how to navigate restaurant wine lists and kicked it off with the profile of him below.
'Four days a week Gérard Basset gets up at 7am and by 8am is poring over his books. For three and a half hours he swots up on viticulture and oenology, then he sets off for his 12 noon start at his daily job. He has about three hours off in the afternoon before finishing at around midnight. Day five is much the same, except that the swotting is eclipsed by a 10.30am start at work. The sixth day, being one of his days off, he goes up to a wine tasting in London and lunches at a restaurant. One day a week his fiancée gives him a blind tasting of two wines to supplement the tastings he does at work. On the seventh day he rests.
It is, he says, “a tough discipline”, although there are holidays – which he undeviatingly spends visiting wine regions. Some of the holidays, as it happens, are prizes, because Gérard Basset, head sommelier at Chewton Glen Hotel in the New Forest, is Britain’s most decorated wine waiter. He is a Master Sommelier; a past winner of the Wine Waiter of the Year competition, sponsored by The Academy of Wine Service and Grants of St James’s; a past winner of the Food & Wine from France Wine Waiter of the Year competition; and current joint holder of the Ruinart UK Sommelier of the Year award. A bit of a superstar.
But Basset has further ambitions – hence the swotting. He has set his heart on becoming Meilleur Sommelier du Monde and a Master of Wine*, the highest qualification in the wine world. “It’s a challenge, a carrot. I didn’t have much education and I just love knowing more and more about wine. We just drank plonk with a bit of water at home.”
Basset, evidently, is exceptional.'
*He became a Master of Wine in 1998 and Best Sommelier in the World (as Meilleur Sommelier du Monde had been renamed) in 2010. The latter eluded him for a long time and he certainly didn't need the qualification by the time he got it, but he was a man of exceptional drive and determination – and of equal charm and generosity. He will be much missed.
Original photograph by Sandy Porter