Gerard Basset, MS MW: An Interview with 2010's Best Sommelier in the World

The Guild of Sommeliers is kicking off our new series of sommelier interviews with one of the best, Gerard Basset, MS MW, winner of the 2010 World Sommelier Championship.  Gerard is the President of the European Court of Master Sommeliers, and he owns Hotel TerraVina in the UK with his wife Nina.  Gerard's full bio, along with his complete list of accomplishments in the wine world, can be found on his website,

Your list of credentials and accomplishments reads like a litany of the most coveted titles in the world of wine.  Tell us about how you got your start in the wine world. 

Although born and raised in France I knew very little about wine until I was in my early twenties.  In my family, at home, we drank every day, some simple, inexpensive wines as part of our daily life, but no more than that.  In my early twenties I came to work in England and it is where I really discovered that wine could be such a wonderful beverage.  I literally fell in love with it and decided that I would go as far as I could in the Wine and Hospitality Trade.

As one of only a handful of individuals in the world who have achieved both the MS and the MW designations, can you briefly describe how they differ, and what separate skill sets are required for each?

They are both very worth while qualifications and I learnt a lot in my journey to achieve both. 

The Master Sommelier is geared primarily for the restaurant trade, although some wine shop managers and winery ambassadors have also qualified.  As well as wine tasting, deep wine knowledge of wine and other beverages, food and wine matching, the wine service element plays an important part in the MS.

The Master of Wine has a strong wine tasting aspect too but in addition, the theory section is much more academic.

Another difference is in the wine tasting.  Whilst both exams demands that some sets of wines are identified as closely as possible, they differ in the approach.  On the road to wine identification, for the Master Sommelier candidates, they are required to describe as well as possible the wines; coming one at a time in front of a jury and they do the tasting orally.  For the Master of Wine, the candidates will need to give a reasoning to prove their point in the identification process and for that they do it by writing.   Both are valid approaches but requiring slightly different skills.

What, in your opinion, could the Master Sommelier learn from a Master of Wine, and vice versa?

Perhaps, a Master Sommelier could learn some useful organizing tips from a Master of Wine.  Indeed, the theory part of the MW requires writing well structured essays and that is a discipline that I have personally found very useful in many segments of my life.

On the other hand, the Master of Wine examination tends to focus on the main wine producing areas of the world but neglect a bit the lesser known ones.  So a Master of Wine might learn and discover from a Master Sommelier some unusual and more esoteric styles of wine that he or she might have never heard of.

However, overall it is a question of individuals and I have been privileged to meet some amazing talents in both camps.

You also hold a Wine MBA diploma.  Perhaps you could elaborate on your work and study ethic?  We have a number of younger sommeliers in the Guild who are seeking advice on best study practices.

The Wine MBA focuses quite naturally on the business aspect of the wine trade such as the marketing and financial techniques to set and develop a wine business (winery or others).  It was for me a wonderful experience and once again I learnt a lot.

I am a great believer that you must never stop learning.  In fact, it is not to American people I should say that as they know more than me.  I love reading motivational or inspiring business books and many of them are written by some American authors.

One must never be embarrassed to ask for help and many successful people will be ready to mentor an aspiring professional if they feel that person is genuine and serious in work/study principles.

Finally, it is important to get the support of your family, colleagues and fellow professionals.  I have been fortunate to have a very supportive and loving wife, a gorgeous son and some fabulous parents in law, who have given me so much love and support throughout my career. I have been very fortunate too that so many professional people have helped me along the way.

 With your mentorship, several of your assistants have achieved the MS diploma.  Do you have any specific suggestions for advanced sommeliers who may be struggling to take the next step?

Make sure you understand what is required and what is the level of difficulty to achieve your goal.  Assess in a very unemotional way, with some-one qualified and who you trust, what are your strengths and weaknesses.  Ensure that this person does not demoralize you but gives you some constructive feedback.  Work to consolidate your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.  Don’t be in a rush, it might take some time but that does not matter.  Plan properly to achieve your strategy.  Be prepared to commit a lot of time and effort.  As mentioned above, do not be afraid to ask for help, but choose the right people and then show that you are serious and also extremely grateful for it.  I could say a lot more about it but I will finish on that topic by saying that you must enjoy the journey, if not what is the point.

A very belated congratulations on winning the title of “Best Sommelier in the World” in 2010.  From this perch and perspective, what do you think are the major differences in the cultures of sommeliers in the United Kingdom, the United States, and France?

With the internet and so many people traveling the differences are less now.  Nevertheless, cultural differences are still reflected in it to an extent.  I cannot be sure for certain as I have never worked in the US but it seems to me that in the US the attitude towards customers is probably the sharpest of the three countries.  In the UK we tend to be a bit more reserved and in France wine can be on occasions given the priority to the detriment of the customers.  However, as a restaurant customer myself, I have experienced both poor and wonderful service in each of these three countries.

You not only won in 2010, but you also finished second in a number of earlier World Sommelier Championships.  Can you describe one of the final rounds in which you competed?  How did you prepare for these competitions?

The ¼ final requires for the candidates to answer a set of tough questions, blind taste some wines and spirits in a written format and do a short service (the same for each candidate).  From that a selection is made and last year we were 51 candidates and went down to 12 candidates.  For the ½ final the twelve candidates had to answer another set of tough written questions and then we went one by one in front of a jury to blind taste some wines and spirits.  The last part of the semi-final was to go through a food and wine matching and serve a table of seven judges, again one by one.

The last day of the competition is the final and there the three finalists come in front of an audience and a large jury to perform a set of exercises.   We had to serve some champagne and make some cocktails.  We had to decant and serve a magnum of red wine.  We had to match some food to a list of wines and beverages, we had to describe and blind taste four wines and eight spirits and finally we had to recognize some large photographs on a screen of famous wineries (for instance ‘Opus One’ was one of them) and famous wine sceneries, (the vineyards of Lanzarote are another example)

As a chef by trade, born and raised in France, what is your approach to food and wine pairing? 

Use common sense but don’t be military in your approach.  Wine and food should be fun and whilst there are some principles worthwhile to follow, nobody has the exact answer and we all have different palates and cultural upbringing; so do not be dogmatic.

Tell us about Hotel TerraVina.

It is a small hotel in the beautiful natural park of the New Forest, in the South of England.  The food takes its inspiration from many Napa Valley restaurants that Nina (my wife) and I love very much.  The service is professional but relaxed and certainly not stuffy. The wine list is of middle size (around 500 bins) with wines from all over the world.  We try to offer some choice for many types of customers.  However, we do not have a lot of hugely expensive wines; that is not our market.

As a Chevalier Sabrage, can you give sabre-ing beginners any advice? 

Sabrage is really just a bit of fun, but one must be extremely careful when performing it as it could potentially be dangerous.  There is little skill in it and it is easy to master.

In the US, we hear a lot about the potential of the UK to produce quality sparkling wine, but we rarely see any of them.  What producers or particular bottles do you recommend?

Yes there are some really delicious sparkling wines here but it is a small area.  The leading sparkling wineries in the UK are Ridgeview Estate in East Sussex, Nyetimber in West Sussex, Chapel  Down in Kent, Hush Heath in Kent and Camel Valley in Cornwall, but they are some new up and coming ones.  The famous wine writer, Steven Spurrier is currently working on a great sparking wine project in the South of England and so is Christian Seely, the CEO of AXA Millesimes (Pichon Longueville Baron and other famous wineries). 

What are you drinking at home right now?

Last night I had a delicious simple white wine from the South West of France produced with the Gros Manseng grape (Côtes de Gascogne, Gros Manseng, Domaine des Cassagnoles 2009) but the night before I had a fabulous Pinot Noir from Hartford Court in Sonoma Valley (Hartford Court Pinot Noir Land’s Edge 2005) and it was divine.  I like many styles and regions of the world and being in England it is wonderful we have so many opportunities to taste and enjoy wines from all around the world.  Santé!

  • Wow.  What accomplishments.  I look forward to meeting Mr. Basset one day.  Thanks Geoff - great questions.

  • I have never had a chance to meet him. However, by following him in the media through the past several years, he has been truly inspirational!Great person to have in our organization.

  • Great interview of an amazing person. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times when I was working in England in 2004. At the time he was preparing for the Best Sommelier in the World Competition. I learned a couple of fundamentals things from him; anyone can achieve their goals if they work very hard and are ready to commit a lot of time and effort. The other thing is humility, arguably the most humble person you will ever meet. Pretty amazing when you see his full bio. Chapeau bas Mr Basset.