Only four people have ever managed to become both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier and I find it hard to believe that any of the other three were as lovely as Gérard Basset. ‘That’s the thing that’s difficult about talking about him… it sounds fictionalised,’ says his 25-year-old son, Romané, at the beginning of this documentary. And so it does; but as I am not Gérard’s only child, just a slight acquaintance, I can affirm that he really was as great as this film, produced by 67 Pall Mall, suggests.
His fiercely competitive spirit was allied to great charm, but both came with humility, unpretentiousness and humour. Which was terrific in real life but could have made for a very dull film – niceness being a most unpromising subject. It is nothing of the sort. In footage of Basset serving wine, swirling wine, laughing over glasses of wine and hugging an ecstatic, much younger Romané as he wins the World’s Best Sommelier competition, he charms us again from beyond the grave. In between, his widow Nina talks, as does Romané, about the kind yet perfectionist man they loved – and lost, far too young, to cancer in 2019. Friends and colleagues such as Ronan Sayburn MS, Jancis Robinson MW and Raymond Blanc OBE laugh as they recount memories of a man who spread joy, seemingly effortlessly, wherever he went.
The real anomaly about Basset was that he was a Frenchman who knew nothing about wine until he came to England, and he always credited the UK wine trade for launching and supporting his glittering career. He arrived, from Saint-Etienne, which as he always acknowledged is famous only for its football team (and ‘famous’ is pushing it), to watch that squad play: so friendly were the locals that, as Nina dryly recounts, he received an entirely erroneous impression of England and determined to come back to stay.
His first great bottle – the one that made him want to learn about wine – was a 1962 Château Batailley, in the late 1970s, and it is a great strength of this film that there is so much extant footage that Basset gets to tell us about it himself. Soon, he was a sommelier at Chewton Glen, where he met Nina and also Robin Hutson, with whom he ended up founding the Hotel du Vin chain at a time when, as Jancis Robinson recalls, sommeliers were generally stuffy people who didn’t necessarily know much about wine and hid their ignorance behind an off-putting mask of hauteur.
Colleague Ronan Sayburn MS credits Basset with giving the sommelier profession credibility; I’d say that he also gave it humanity
I met Basset after he and Hutson had sold their hotels to the Malmaison chain – and I sincerely hope they made a fortune, because their gain was certainly our loss. He and Nina opened Terravina, a wine-focused hotel in the New Forest, where Basset’s signature combination of friendliness and extraordinary knowledge was allied to Nina’s hotelier skills. And meanwhile, he was accruing prizes and honours – among them, a Wine Business MBA, Best Sommelier in Europe and eventually, in 2010, World’s Best Sommelier. The film is especially good on his many tries at that ultimate accolade. ‘You should have stopped earlier’, someone tells him, and his bewilderment is evident: ‘Why?’ he exclaims: ‘then I’d be a quitter!’
That, Nina makes clear, he never was, and this film is also a hymn to her staunchness, selflessness, and love. When, as Editor of Eurostar’s magazine, I commissioned Basset to write a food and wine matching column, I was as likely to receive his copy from Nina as from him; they came as a team.
Towards the end of his life, he began writing a memoir, and Nina’s recounting of his absolute determination – so typical! – to finish it before he died was the second time this film made me cry. Sayburn credits Basset with giving the sommelier profession credibility; I’d say that he also gave it humanity. We lost him at 61, which is cruelly young. But thanks to his wife – who is determined, as she says in a film that is part of her project, to keep his name alive – his influence will last far longer.