Posted: 1st February 2019
Gérard Basset died from throat cancer this month. It is sad news, not least because he was younger than me and had everything to live for. I had known him from the late eighties, since the first time I stayed at Chewton Glen in the New Forest. He was the sommelier and the hotel was managed by his young friend Robin Hutson. Their partnership survived until Gérard’s death, linked by any number of hotels that had been spawned by the successful Hôtel du vin chain that they launched together. I think it was also at Chewton Glen that Gérard met his wife Nina, the mother of his child. I have a memory of a sunny day, a good lunch and a tour of the cellar. The owner, Martin Skan, was in close attendance, as he always was.
As for Gérard he was shy, attentive and genuinely humble. He struck me as quite different from most other French sommeliers, the ones I had to stomach at so many tastings in France and who worked in restaurants with Michelin rosettes; the more stars the restaurant possessed, the more arrogant they became. They didn’t taste like us, they had a system: first ‘bouche’, second ‘bouche’, and then an interminable list of fruits and flowers that would have flummoxed a nation of gardeners. They looked down on us as amateurs, which I suppose we were.
There was one in particular, whom we knew as ‘Cricket Bat’ who was quite insufferably full of himself and we got our own back by teasing him relentlessly. In contrast Gérard was modest, maybe because he had fallen into the world of wine by chance, having started out as a kitchen skivvy here and had been put through his paces in England rather than France. He had been born near St Etienne in the Rhone Valley but he gradually became an Anglo-French wine man, with a foot on either side of the Channel. That being said, he was very much at home in Britain.
The Rhone Valley is my next recollection of Gérard. We were visiting vineyards, several of us crammed into an Espace. When I became conscious of Gérard he was sitting nonchalantly by the opposite window with his head plunged into my book on Syrah. I remembered a story about Hilaire Belloc entering a railway carriage to find a man reading one of his books. He strode over to the window and opened it wide, grabbed the book and hurled it out of the moving train. I was half inclined to do the same, but it would have involved leaning over two people and wrestling with the window handle. By that time even the placid Gérard would have become suspicious. He carried on reading my book and didn’t look the slightest bit embarrassed. I thought it was even possible he was not aware of the fact I had written it.
That book caused a storm later. There was a front-page story in the New York Times about ‘young’, iconoclastic wine-writers upsetting the older generation. As a measure of how wrong the piece was, I was compared to the Guru of Maryland, Robert Parker. They quoted a tasting note from Syrah about a Northern Rhone wine smelling like a hamster’s cage. This had set off a cacophony among the stuffed shirts of wine at the time but Gérard was clearly impressed. Several years later when he published his first book on wine, Wine Experience, he made reference to that tasting note. With pride he showed me a page illustrated with a photograph of a very clean, empty hamster’s cage.
Another time I saw Gérard in his native France was at the Crillon-le-Brave hotel in the Ventoux in about 1998. I was with my small family, and we had been staying nearby at the Domaine des Anges. Gérard was giving talks on wine to the guests and I had been invited to write them up. Gérard was reverential as always and deferred to me on a number of points, but he was soaring ahead in his quest to win all the world’s wine competitions and accumulate all the honours that could be bestowed in the vinous world. He was Britain’s best sommelier and eventually the best sommelier in the world, he was a Master Sommelier, a Master of Wine, managed to acquire an MSc and – I think – an OBE; and yet, he was still the same old Gérard. Nothing really went to his head.
The last time I remember seeing him was at the World Wine Awards three years ago. At first he had served on one of the juries in his usual modest way but, with his talents, he was quickly appointed a sort of ‘cardinal’ serving directly under our Pope Steven (Spurrier). I was a mere bishop, in charge of my clergy of chiefly MWs from Austria and Germany. Teutonic wines were not, think necessarily Gérard’s strongest suit – not so hedonistic and possibly a shade too cerebral. He was nonetheless called in to resolve questions of orthodoxy when I could not convince the people myself. It was always the same, humble, smiling Gérard, full of charm and bonhomie. We shall all miss him.