When the late Gérard Basset OBE MW MS was crowned World’s Best Sommelier in Santiago in 2010, on his sixth attempt, his son Romané and wife Nina were there to share in the celebration of an achievement that was the culmination of years of hard work and study. Romané, who was aged 11 at the time, remembers that his father was convinced he hadn’t made the final round, and when his number was called, there was a frantic search to find Gérard and get him back on stage. That wasn’t the only hitch. ‘I remember dropping the trophy in the hotel lobby, in front of the world’s wine press. It still has a dent in it today.’
Gérard, Decanter’s Hall of Fame Award recipient in 2013, describes this episode in Tasting Victory, the book he wrote during his illness with cancer of the oesophagus. He was diagnosed in 2017 and died in January 2019, aged 61.
‘It was hard sometimes, writing when he was unwell, but I think he was grateful to have a project that he could focus on when he couldn’t get out to tastings,’ remembers Romané. ‘When he wrote his previous book about tasting, The Wine Experience, he would agonise over every sentence. This time, Mum urged him just to sit down and write, and refine it afterwards. He could sometimes be overly self-critical.’ Indeed, he didn’t see the book as an autobiography, according to Romané: ‘For him, it was more about showing people how to be competitive, to be the best that you can.’
Reading the book, it is striking just how much work went into the preparation for all of the many sommelier competitions that Gérard entered. ‘There is a three-year gap between the World’s Best Sommelier competitions, and about halfway through that cycle, the books would start piling up on the dining room table,’ says Romané. ‘As the competition approached, he would spend longer and longer studying. I’d help Mum prepare blind tastings for him, using black glasses. Generally, it would be very nice wines that we poured, but we sometimes went to the off-licence and picked up a bottle of Echo Falls or something similar, to throw him off the scent.’
Romané got a taste of Gérard’s thorough approach while studying for his own wine qualifications, WSET Levels 1 and 2, during the university summer holiday in 2019. ‘By this time, Papa was unwell and was undergoing chemotherapy. But we’d walk the dog together and he’d quiz me: “Name all of Bordeaux’s Left Bank appellations, from north to south”, that kind of thing!’
Despite Gérard’s career success and work ethic, Romané never felt that he came second best. ‘ By the time I was born, he’d done his time working the restaurant floor every night. And he didn’t compromise on being a father because of the competitions.’ Naturally, Gérard was eager to pass on his love of wine. ‘I can’t remember a definitive time when I was introduced to wine,’ says Romané. ‘I’d be given perhaps a couple of tiny sips from a young age, and as I grew older, Papa would encourage me to articulate what I thought of the wine.’
Father and son shared a love in particular of Champagne, Sherry and Madeira. ‘We holidayed in wine regions often, especially in Jerez and Madeira,’ says Romané. ‘Sipping on a Madeira with local food, looking out to sea, is a special experience.’
The last trip that Romané took with his father was to Valpolicella in late 2018, when Gérard was among five winners of the 37th Masi Prize. ‘While he was there, he forgot he was ill. He enjoyed spending time with friends in the industry, and we had a very special evening at a restaurant on Lake Garda, drinking Amarone with friends. Actually, I didn’t quite realise how deeply he was loved in the sommelier community until after he’d passed away.’
Romané may end up following in his father’s footsteps. This autumn he starts his final year of a French degree at King’s College University, London – where, naturally, he has spent some time as president of the wine society. He is considering studying for the WSET Diploma, and has completed work experience in the wine industry in the UK, Spain and France, including a four-month stage at Moët & Chandon.
‘I’m still not 100% sure whether wine will be my career,’ he says. Whatever direction his path eventually takes, Romané has been influenced by Gérard’s attitude to work.
‘He believed in always going above and beyond what’s being asked of you, for one – if I had to write a one-page essay, he’d urge me to write a page-and-a-half. He believed in the importance of finding your passion – and following it. And he always learned from past failures. All his competition experience came together in that moment when he lifted the trophy in Santiago, 10 years ago.’
Read more about Gérard’s life and career in Tasting Victory: The Life and Wines of the World’s Favourite Sommelier (Unbound, £25). The book will be published in the US soon.