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, http://gerardbasset.com/
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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.
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
As a chef by trade, born and raised in France, what is
your approach to food and wine pairing?
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.
a Chevalier Sabrage, can you give sabre-ing beginners any advice?
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.
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?
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).
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.
Wow. What accomplishments. I look forward to meeting Mr. Basset one day. Thanks Geoff - great questions.