The wine industry is well blessed with leading, influential personalities from all parts of the trade, but few, if any, are as respected, admired or as decorated at Gerard Basset. Apologies Gerard for not following your name with the usual list of qualifications, but they need a drum roll all of their own, for Basset is unique in being able to have MW, MS, MBA and even an OBE after his name. As he celebrates, literally today, 10 years since he has his wife, Nina, opened Hotel TerraVina, Richard Siddle sits down with him to talk everything from St Etienne FC, Sven Goran Eriksson, to mentoring the next generation of world leading sommeliers.
Success has not come easily to Gerard Basset. It took him, after all, 25 years of competition before finally winning the Word Sommelier Championships in 2010. But as he celebrates 10 years of Hotel Terravina, with his wife Nina, he looks forward to what future challenges adventures will bring.
When you consider the illustrious career of arguably one of the world’s most influential sommeliers, then you would imagine it would be a romantic story about sipping wine in a famous French vineyard that sent Gerard Basset OBE, MW, MS, MBA, OIV MSc en route to the success he has subsequently had.
It was actually a cold, night in Liverpool on March 16, 1977 that was the inspiration for Basset to, at least, want to start a new life and career in the UK, rather than spend a life in hospitality or become a sommelier and hotelier.
It was the high octane drama of seeing Liverpool come back from a seemingly impossible position to beat his beloved St Etienne, in one of most dramatic Quarter-Finals ever of the European Cup, that was to convince Basset that he wanted to make the UK his home.
A journey that eventually took him to the heart of the New Forest – many miles from Anfield and Liverpool – where he has firmly established himself as one of the country’s leading hoteliers and restaurateurs. Initially with Hotel du Vin, which he founded in 1994 in Winchester with his former colleague and managing director, Robin Huston, from Chewton Glen, where Basset had been head sommelier. Tother they helped create a new style of boutique hotel, and were able to build up to a six-strong group before selling on to Malmaison in 2004.
It was then when he and his wife, Nina, were able to do their own thing with the award-winning Hotel TerraVina that they have run for the last decade. Today actually marks the hotel’s 10 year anniversary and whilst he is proud of what they have achieved to date, he believes the hotel’s best years lie ahead. “We still have many plans for what we can do here,” he says. “The next few years are going to important years for us and we have some plans to develop TerraVina. It’s time. It’s been 10 years so you need to make some changes, tweak the product and offering a little and have a bit of revamp.”
It was a pleasure to catch up with Basset, sitting on the beautifully appointed wooden terrace that sits looking down on the quiet TerraVina gardens. A spot more in keeping with an old colonial townhouse and typical of all the subtle design touches that make TerraVina such a unique, relaxed and memorable location.
Inspired by California
For Basset the inspiration for TerraVina actually lies in California and the kind of hospitality that he says is so common in the hotels and restaurants there.
It certainly shares the same charm, warm personality, professionalism, and attention to detail that have made Basset such a highly respected, and loved figure right around the world.
“We did not want people to come in and think we have just re-done Hotel du Vin. We wanted to use a lost of wood because of the forest and have an open kitchen like they do in Napa,” he says. “We wanted a modern, more Californian experience.”
He is also quick to point out most of the praise for TerraVina’s success should go to his wife, Nina, as she is more involved on a day-to-day basis, as Basset is involved in so many other projects both in the UK but around the world. “I would not be able to do so much if it was not for Nina,” he stresses.
In fact when he is not being the host with the most at TerraVina he spends on average about five months of the year travelling the world still visiting wineries, meeting new producers and sharing his insights and love for wine. “It’s a good balance to have,” he says.
“It’s good from a financial point of view to have other revenue streams, but it’s also nice mentally to not always be doing the same thing. I travel a lot and can bring back ideas.”
He adds: “I designed my own range of glasses, in collaboration with Lehman Glass, and travel to Asia and the US with that. Some projects might just be once a year. I work with Decanter Magazine and a French magazine one or two weeks a year. I host trips with a French wine society and do some work for Sommelier International where I might do one or two weeks tasting wines for them. But when you are away hosting trips you meet new people, and come up with new ideas.”
Most of all he is helping guide and influence the next generation of great sommeliers with his role as the head of the technical committee and Master of Ceremonies for the prestigious Best Sommelier in the World competition, run by the ASI (Association de la Sommellerie Internionale), which run events around the world which cover Europe, Asia, the Americas and the overall world event.
“Its a great thing to do. You travel, you meet a lot of people and as your name is out there, so you get other opportunities on the back of it.”
It is a role he takes incredibly seriously and sees him meticulously plan and present competitions that can take up many weeks of his year – all unpaid.
“It’s a big responsibility, it’s exciting but it can also be stressful because you don’t want things to go wrong and disadvantage one candidate over another, even by mistake. It’s not easy.”
He is also uniquely qualified to have such a role. Basset’s determination and desire to continuously challenge himself by taking part in more competitions and business qualifications is what sets him apart from his peers. The story of how he finally became World Sommelier of the year as recently as 2010 reads like the roller coaster ride of how an Olympic champion finally got that gold medal around their neck.
Try, and try again
In fact it took Basset some 25 years of hard competition before finally getting his personal gold. “I started my first competition in 1985 and finished in 2010,” he recalls.
He says it actually got harder with every year as the standard of the competitors increased with each event.
“It’s like the Premiership football. The level now is probably a little higher than it was 20 years ago. Becoming a Master of Wine is more difficult than it was before. There are more countries participating, there are more wines, countries and vintages to know.”
When he first started competing in the mid-eighties there was arguably three or four countries from where the winner could come from. “When I was in Chile (in 2010) there was like 10 to 12 countries that could win and now there are 15 countries with really good candidates. It’s like the football World Cup. In the 1970s only a few teams could win it – compared to now.”
The current holder of the Best Sommelier in the World awards is the Swede, Arvid Rosengren, who is one of a number of strong contenders from across Scandinavia. In fact they are so serious that their sommeliers attend regular training camps for participating candidates to go and hone their skills and mental strength.
It is why the sommelier world stands to attention when Basset takes to the floor to chair the proceedings for the latest world sommelier finals. For he has been there, battled, failed (in his eyes), fought back and finally come out on top as the world number one. He knows exactly what it is the contestants are going through and rather than make things even more difficult he is determined to help, support and be painstakingly fair to all candidates.
“I have done it several times. I have made my mistakes. I know exactly what a candidate feels like standing there on the stage and how stressful it is. I remember when Paolo Basso won in 2013 in Tokyo he said when he saw I was MC it relaxed him as he knew I would not be out to going to try and catch him out.”
I had the privilege of seeing Basset in action at the last world finals that took place in the intense, packed atmosphere of the grand theatre in Mendoza in Argentina. An audience that was disappointed not to see their local hero, Paz Levinson, make it to the final three, was soon completely in the thrall of Basset as he introduced each of the finalists and put them through a series of tests all played out on the main stage like a series of scenes in a live play. This was drama to (nearly) match that Quarter-Final at Anfield some 38 years later.
Basset was meticulous. Carefully reading out each candidate’s instructions as clearly as possible. Always asking if they want him to repeat them. His attention to detail and professionalism would certainly inspire you to perform beyond expectations. “It is absolutely important to get it right and do it in a way that does not put any extra staff on the candidate.”
What it takes to be the best
It is fascinating to hear Basset’s assessment of what it takes to be a top sommelier. To be the word’s best it is not enough just to know your subject matter inside out. You need to be able to teach your body go to another level of performance under intense pressure.
“It’s a bit like chess,” says Basset. “You don’t really need to be an athlete to win the world chess championship and spend hours in the gym, but you need to be fit.
“When I won the world championship (in 2010) I made sure I looked after my weight and was fit. It also makes you feel good about yourself.”
He also spent a lot of time training himself mentally. As well as reading a lot of motivational books he also worked with a sports psychologist.
Particularly after he went through what he says was the “terrible experience” of going to the world finals in Montreal in 2000 as the favourite and then failing to reach the final three. He put that down to not having the time to fully prepare as his son had just been born and he was writing a book, as well as dealing with the usual working pressures. “I was mentally exhausted going there and not as prepared as I would have liked,” he recalls.
Learn from experiences
It was not a mistake he wanted to make again. “I needed to analyse what had happened so that it would not happen again,” he says.
So on reading about how the new England football manager at the time, Sven Gőran Eriksson, had used spots psychologists to try and relax and work with the team – to stunning effects when they turned the tables on Germany to beat them famously 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier in Munich – he decided to employ one himself.
“I was fascinated by this. For the whole week before this game in Munich, Ericsson and the psychologists worked with the team to say ‘this is only a game, so just relax and go out and enjoy it’. “They did not talk about Three Lions or the Queen. They tried to take away all the pressure so that they had no fear. And the performance was transformed.
“It made total sense to me. It also made me realise that if I wanted to win this competition, it was not a question of doing the same thing again and again. So I talked to a sport psychologist about visualisation and rehearsing certain situations in your head, so it is like you have done it many times before. It made you think in a different way. I enjoyed it. It was very interesting.”
Basset’s determination to reach the top saw him compete in a further three world competitions, coming second twice in a row, in 2004 and 2007 (where he was equal second), before finally being crowned word champion in 2010.
It has not just been sommelier competitions that Basset has been determined to achieve the highest level of performance. Education has also played an important part in his life and is still the only person in the world to be a Master of Wine, a Master Sommelier and have an MBA in wine. Earlier this summer he went a step further and completed the MSc in wine management from the OIV (Organisation de la Vigne at du Vin).
With that even Basset seems finally satisfied. “I have achieved my career Grand Slam,” he says.
Before quickly pointing out he plans to carry on doing more modules under the OIV scheme and even has his eye on doing the WSET sake course.
He also insists all his various qualifications does not necessarily make him a specialist in any one area of wine, but prefers to see himself as a “well rounded generalist”.
Basset is very happy to act as a mentor and head of ceremonies for future world sommeliers competitions and has recently signed up to another four years at least.
Managing his sommelier team
Basset’s focus on the next generation of sommeliers is very much how he runs his own sommelier team at TerraVina. It is a little surprising considering his profile and knowledge that he leaves the actual wine buying to his three strong team, including the head sommelier. His only input being to give them guidelines and a framework to select from. Clearly he is still involved behind the scenes, but it is that delegation of duties and responsibility that he says is vital.
“I always leave the sommeliers to do their own selection. Hotel du Vin included. We work with about 10 suppliers, six or seven regularly and then we use specialists who we might order from once a year. People like Liberty, Enotria, George Barbier, Thorman Hunt and Boutintot we use regularly.
“You want to work with people who are serious. It’s good to build relationships. If you change suppliers all the time you lose the rapport and their support. If you are buying wine from a supplier on a regular basis then it is logical that they will help you when you ask, say, for wine for a special dinner.”
When it comes to buying wine then price is very much secondary to quality, stresses Basset. “But if we have three wines of the same quality, then we will look at the price.”
When looking to shake up certain parts of the list he will get his team to taste blind through a whole series of wines and then pick out the best quality they can find. If they feel the second or third wine offers the best price and value on the list then that is the wine he would urge them to go for. “It may not be our number one choice, but if it is the number two and at a better price then that is fine.”
He is also not obsessed about getting the exact right vintage for every wine. If a supplier has run out, then he understands. “It’s not a problem, we are very flexible on that.”
“The UK has a lot of very good wine merchants. They have been around for a long time because they know what they are doing. They are good at selling wine and they are good at looking after their customers.”
In fact there are some wine merchants that he is quite happy to take a case of wine that he has not tried because he trusts their palates to find them wines he likes.
Day to day
Basset is also quite candid about the difficulties of running a rural restaurant and hotel outside of the parallel universe of London. “The market has never really recovered since the 2008 recession. It has always been a tight economy and is even more now with Brexit,” add Basset.
The New Forest is also not on the main tourist trail for overseas visitors coming to the UK. Instead he relies very much on local trade, particularly at lunchtime in the restaurant. As for hotel guests it is very much British couples looking to explore the New Forest.
He sees Terravina as being a more “mid market” alternative to the more expensive nearby, Chewton Glen, where his emphasis is “offering very good value”.
Despite its 10 years it is a constant challenge to keep re-inventing its offer. It is, for example, currently offering a special overnight stay for those travelling down to take luxury cruises from nearby Southampton, with the added incentive of leaving your car at Terravina’s car park for the duration of your trip.
It is why he ensures the wine list is pitched at the right level to be affordable for all its guests. He estimates around a quarter of his guests will be very in to their wine, but the majority are looking for a quality dinner and night out “and will trust us with our wine selection”. It means the average core bottle price sits at around £30 to £45, which goes up to around £80 to £90 on a Saturday with a lot more wines sold by the glass.
“We want our sommeliers to sell wine that people can afford so that they want to come back. That’s the most important thing.”
And return they do.
As our chat draws to a close he shares one final fascinating insight with me. Outside of wine the one individual who stands as a mentor for him is the former French president Francois Mitterand. Not, he quickly adds, that he ever voted for him. He admires more for his life story that saw him bounce back from numerous defeats and disappointments and to keep going forward.
Which in Mitterand’s and Basset’s case has meant reaching the very top of their professions.
- Main photograph was taken by Taisuke Yoshida.