Jan 17: Gerard Basset, MS, MW, MBA, OBE, World’s Best Sommelier (2010), a Sommelier, Restaurateur and Human Being Extraordinaire is no more. He lost the battle with cancer yesterday. An introvert who became alive on stage while talking about wine looked very frail when I met him last at the MUST wine conference at Cascais Portugal where he was a Speaker. Cancer had gotten to him but he did not let it show on his face. He also joined us on an exclusive trip to Madeira and was cheerful and we shared many interesting anecdote of his usual visits to Madeira with his family and restructuring his restaurant business. I also learnt that the cheapest way to visit Madeira was by taking special packaged trips from UK and not from Lisbon.
First meeting him in 2012, at Vinisud wine show at Montpellier, I was impressed the way he conducted Master Class on ‘Varieties of the Mediterranean’ that included an exclusive tasting of 12 Mediterranean wines. When I asked him a few tips for the budding sommeliers in India, he volunteered to send me a detailed note when he went back home as it was a very busy time at the Show. That he did so as promised was a bit of surprise but in the later years I realised, he was a superguy to whom the accolades had not dominated or affected his personality.
He will be missed by the entire wine community, his family and friends. I dedicate this earlier Article I wrote after chatting with him at length in Hong Kong in 2013 where I was a judge at the Decanter Asian Wine Awards and he was a vice-chair. Nothing has been changed in that Article. Rest in Peach, my friend. Hopefully, you will find wine drinkers in the other world where they would welcome you- Subhash Arora
‘You are the most qualified wine personality in the world. Are you the only one with an MS, MW and MBA,’ I ask him. ‘I am sure I am not the only with these qualifications,’ says the French native who migrated to England 33 years ago and prefers to be identified only as a Brit despite his Agatha Christie-created detective Hercule Poirot look and the unwavering French Accent. He does concede that he doesn’t know of any people in that situation, personally.
There are around 200 people with MS (Master Sommelier and not the MS thousands like me possess from the American universities - Master of Science!). There are 312 with MW in the world. There are a few who have both the qualifications. Wine MBA from Bordeaux adds the business acumen. Does becoming Sir Basset (he was awarded the OBE by Queen of England in June 2011) put pressure on him? ‘Having titles always has a bit of pressure but if you are not arrogant and pretentious it does not matter,’ is his succinct reply, but adding, ‘you still have to continue learning every day and improve your skills.’
But why did he have to go for both MS and MW, each of which is a coveted title, and which one did he do first? ‘MS – it was the first for me to become a good sommelier and then MW which is about marketing. MS is more on the floor, serving people while MW is to learn and write good English. It deals more with enology,’ he says.
The 55-year old Sommelier Extraordinaire who won the World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Santiago, Chile (held every 3 years by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale and sponsored by Moet et Chandon), had made five failed attempts earlier since 1992. This experience and never-say-die attitude has perhaps made him humble and non arrogant. He also believes that Master of Wine is a marathon whereas the Sommelier Competition is like a 100-meter sprint.
Basset has had no history of wine in his family, during his childhood. In fact, the closest he got to wine was when he came to Liverpool; fell in love with England and deciding to take up residence in UK, took up a job as a dishwasher on the Isle of Man. He learnt English and became a waiter in a good restaurant. Several years of taking different courses, and working his way through different jobs including those as a sommelier, he eventually ended up owning the boutique, deluxe Hotel TerraVina with his wife Nina in 2007 in New Forest, Southampton, about 100 kms from London and is still running it.
What is the food/wine ratio in his restaurant on the average, I ask? ‘In terms of money, I’d say 40% wine and 60% food. People come for food at lunch time, you see. They may have a glass of wine. That’s where food brings in more money,’ he says, reaffirming the 60/40 ratio.
‘With you around, does it help to serve more wine? How important is it for the sommelier to know about wines in order to sell wine?’ ‘I do interact with the waiters and the customers and mentor sommeliers and train them regularly,’ he says.
‘A sommelier should be a good sales person’, he says. ‘How does your sommelier sell the wines? Do you ask the customer what he likes or what his budgets are?’ ‘This is a matter of experiment and presence of mind. We have to ask them what they want in terms of price. My sommelier would bring 2-3 bottles and show them in order to get sole idea about the price range they are comfortable with. So we have to be discreet in asking what they would like to order.’
What is the price range of wines you sell, I ask. ‘We don’t sell very expensive wines. We don’t sell Chateau Latour or Lafite. We sell wines in the range of £15-300.’ What are the mark-ups in your wine? ‘Sometimes people don’t realize how difficult it is to run a restaurant,’ as he explains to me in a way that was not very comprehensible – except that the markups were generally 250%. 'Higher end wines are less - you put cash margins to the cost price only. If a wine costs £200, we sell for 300 + VAT.’
If someone comes to the restaurant and is not sure of the wine, what do you have to offer? ‘We suggest wine by the glass for wines that are low end or slightly more expensive.’ How do you promote wines when the publicity is not allowed? ‘Some customers are knowledgeable, others are more traditional. The sommelier has to understand them all. To talk to all the customers in the same manner, is wrong. If they are novices, you have to make them at ease, not be patronizing.'
How do you popularize the wine in a restaurant? Any tips? ‘We offer some good deals on special wines. We have special offerings regularly. Some wines are good for future purchases, for others the bug has just caught on.' How about keeping some dishes with wine complimentary? We don’t do that because for someone who does not like wine, having the dish alone would make it more expensive.’
We say drink less, drink better. But then won’t the consumption go down? ‘Not true. There are always new people who start drinking wine. Even in England it was true 60 years ago; today, they all drink wine. The whole world is going in the same direction of lesser but better. But in countries like Brazil, China, Japan and India the consumption is going up.’
What’s your advice to improve the sales and become a better sommelier? ‘You must be a people person to be a good sommelier, who must understand people to bring them back to the restaurant. A good sommelier is not someone who knows a lot about the wine or who can sell more expensive wines. He should know how to talk to the customers and be friendly to them. He should know about interesting wines and interesting stories that help to sell more wines. The more you interact with the customers, the more you learn about them and the more you can help them in choosing the wine - but don’t make it frightening; so the people who have not tried wine before, they want to try. You don’t want to make them look like idiots so don’t be patronizing,' says Gerard who also believes that sommeliers should never be snobs or elitists like many of them notoriously are.
Perhaps a silly question, but what are his favourite wines? ‘My favourite red is Napa Valley Cabernet, Burgundy and Madeira. In whites, I like white Burgundy and of course Champagne.’ He clarifies that now it’s not only French wines that impress as the best, but several new world wines are available and well liked by the consumers for quality. France has lost its virtual monopoly of the past. He also firmly believes that no other country, region or vineyard can ever produce wines like Burgundy-they are unique wines.
Finally, what does he think of the Decanter Asia Wine Awards and what sort of impression is he leaving with? ‘I must say I am very impressed by the tasting standard of the Asian judges whom I have met here in Hong Kong. People like you have so much to offer towards the tasting and experience. I enjoyed the judging and interacting with various people,’ he says in his inimitable modest style as we say goodbye for yet another time.
For earlier articles please click
Vinisud 2014: Best of the Best- Basso and Basset
Vinisud 2012: Tips for Sommeliers from Top Sommelier