I always knew the late Gerard Basset was special. But reading his newly published autobiography, written shortly after he was diagnosed with oesophagus cancer in 2017, emphasises that the man who has been described as "the world's favourite sommelier" was even more extraordinary than I had previously thought.
Born in the industrial town of Saint-Étienne, near the French city of Lyon, there was nothing in Basset's early life that indicated he would become a wine connoisseur.
His family life was tough – not for a lack of money, but rather because of the dysfunctional relationship between his parents. While the anger that filled the household was not directed at Basset or his two siblings, it did result in a desperately unhappy childhood.
This, however, shaped the adult he was to become. Dreaming of a future life with a family of his own, he promised that he would create a loving and peaceful atmosphere – something he went on to achieve with his wife Nina and son Romané. He also developed a sharp sensitivity to people. "I felt a need for people to be comfortable, which would be useful in my future career," he wrote.
In Tasting Victory, Basset recalls how a love of football inspired him to move to England. Having first encountered the country when travelling to Liverpool to support his home team of Saint-Étienne in the European Cup in 1977, he decided to return two years later. His first job on arriving in England was as a kitchen porter in a hotel on the Isle of Man, before heading south to take up a position as commis waiter at the Crown hotel in Lyndhurst in the heart of the New Forest.
Basset's move into the world of wine was serendipitous (as outlined in these pages). It proved to be the start of stratospheric career rise that took him to become the sommelier of Chewton Glen in New Milton, Hampshire, launch Hotel du Vin with Robin Hutson and set up Hotel TerraVina with wife Nina. The trials and tribulations of creating and then running Hotel du Vin and Hotel TerraVina provide fascinating reading for anyone involved in running their own hospitality business or thinking of doing so in the future.
The fact that hundreds of people packed Winchester Cathedral in June 2019, five months after his death at the age of 61 on 16 January, and contributed to the crowdfunding campaign to publish Tasting Victory, is tribute to a man who has left a lasting and indelible mark on the world of wine. This book provides a fascinating legacy to a remarkable life.
Tasting Victory by Gerard Basset (Unbound, £25)
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