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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
17 Jan 2019

The wine world lost a towering figure yesterday. See also Support Gerard Basset's memoirs.

Gerard Basset OBE, MW, MS, OIV MSc, MBA. The one set of letters after his name that will be mourned rather than admired worldwide is RIP. This exemplary man of wine, one of the wine world's most loved, as well as highest-achieving, died at home after a long stint in hospital following the greatest, and most unwarranted, trial of his life. 

Cancer of the oesophagus, first diagnosed at the end of 2017, refused to co-operate with Gerard, one of the most determined fighters I have ever met. One of the poignant rewards of an overloaded inbox is that I was able easily to find his email telling me of his diagnosis, which ends, 'Having now the results of all the tests, the consultants are quite positive and so I am. It will not be easy but I am going to tackle my fight with the disease with the same intensity and determination that I did when preparing the MW or winning Sommelier Competitions. I want to win!'

The strange thing about this driven sommelier-turned-hotelier and writer is how aimless his early life was. He was born in St-Étienne in central France in 1957 in what he has described as a particularly cold household. His undemonstrative father did not believe in television and Gerard felt isolated from his classmates because his home life was so different from theirs. He did not distinguish himself at school and initially bounced from lowly job to lowly job.

Football and cycling were his interests and it was St-Étienne's away match against Liverpool that first coaxed him, slightly reluctantly, across the Channel. His first job in hospitality was as a kitchen porter on the Isle of Man, but working as a commis waiter at a more ambitious establishment in the New Forest lit the flame for his lifelong admiration for fine dining.

He quickly became obsessed, even persuading window dressers in Selfridge's to show him their particular way of folding napkins. David Burns, the longest-serving Master of Wine, played a crucial part in introducing Gerard to the pleasures and intricacies of wine when he was appointed junior sommelier at the ambitious Chewton Glen country house hotel in Hampshire.

It was here that he met Nina, who went on to be a hotel inspector and then his partner, with another Chewton colleague Robin Hutson, in the hugely successful Hotel du Vin chain of informal hotels, just what the country needed in contrast to more chintzy establishments. Before, and after, the chain was sold to the Malmaison group, what Gerard really enjoyed was training others in wine knowledge and service.

For someone whose school career was undistinguished, Gerard developed into a fanatical student. Working tirelessly and with utter determination to qualify as a Master Sommelier in 1989 (he became European president of the Court of Master Sommeliers), he passed the gruelling Master of Wine exams in 1998 through sheer grit. That was clearly not enough, and he subsequently added an MBA in Wine and the OIV MSc course, topped off by an OBE in 2011.

But in tandem with all this study was Gerard's career as a contestant in the international sommelier competitions, with Nina playing a vital role in setting him blind tasting challenges, even setting up little phials of liqueurs they used to pack in their luggage as aides-memoire for competition days. He had no fewer than six shots at being the World's Best Sommelier and, being Gerard, won at the sixth attempt in Chile, posing with his medal proudly draped in the Union Jack.

In 2007 Gerard and Nina opened their own Hotel TerraVina in the New Forest, which was reconfigured as The Spot in the Woods café, deli and bed and breakfast in early 2018, giving them a little bit more time to concentrate on Gerard's failing health. He was an extraordinarily stoical patient and declined an offer from a hospice towards the end of his life because he was unready to give up the fight.

A hugely popular honorary president of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (he took over from me and preceded Steven Spurrier), Gerard will be remembered for his charm, his modesty and his determination to share the pleasures of wine – not just the grandest wines but his latest discoveries.

He is survived by Nina and their student son Romané, whose sterling performance in WSET exams gave Gerard so much pleasure. They are both planning to attend this year's WSET awards and graduation ceremony on Monday. A small, private funeral will take place soon. Later in the spring a memorial service will be held in London, details of which will be released in due course. Messages of condolence can be sent to inmemoriam@culturalcomms.co.uk

While undergoing the first of his treatments, Gerard, typically, refused to take things easy and sat down to write his memoirs, designed to be an inspirational business book like the many he devoured himself. The plan is to have this fascinating book published by the first-class publisher Unbound, which operates on a crowdfunding model.

The appeal will be launched early next week. Details will be given on JancisRobinson.com – or look out for https://unbound.com/books/gerard-basset/ when it is live. Nina wrote yesterday, 'in a funny way the timing of his passing and the soon-to-open pledges for his book could not have coincided better, as, judging by the 100's and 100's of heartfelt messages I have received just this afternoon alone, Gerard is very much in people's thoughts, hearts and minds. Ever the planner, I would like to think Gerard had a hand in orchestrating such happy coincidence!'