Unlike many members, I never had the fortune to know Gerard. I did, however, know of Gerard. It seems there are few people in the wine world who have inspired so many others and made them all feel so welcome. Without exception, when his name has come up in conversation – no matter whether that conversation has been in England, France or even Chile – someone has told me about how delightful Gerard was, and how he was a true mentor for them (this is most especially in the case with the many young sommeliers who have cited him to me as their mentor in interviews). Gerard passed away in January 2019 after battling cancer of the oesophagus, however not before penning his autobiography, which was published posthumously earlier this year. Tasting Victory: The Life and Wines of the World’s Favourite Sommelier offers an opportunity for those of us who never had the fortune of knowing Gerard to get to know a bit of him and his inspiring life story, through his own words.
Right from the beginning, Gerard doesn’t shy away from sharing details of his challenging early years where he dropped out of school and lived an uncomfortable childhood with his parents in Saint-Etienne. His frankness and honesty about his less than ideal upbringing endears you to him from the start, and then begins his story – where he changes the direction of his life following a fateful trip to a football game in Liverpool. With a desire to return to England, he finds his way into the hospitality industry, which would, of course, change the shape of his life forever.
In the words of a seemingly starry-eyed young man, he describes his first experiences in the world of fine gastronomy and lingers over those first encounters. Recalling with fascination the details of the dishes, the service and the sensations that inspired him to want to dedicate his life to this career. The magic he felt in these early experiences no doubt is the same magic he tried to cast over every diner who would come to visit his restaurants over the decades to come. This sense of innocence and enjoyment never seems to be lost, even in the more testing years as a restauranteur and hotelier.
His autobiography charts his progression in the industry and how he worked his way up through a wide range of roles from dishwasher to dessert chef, before working as a sommelier, as, of course, he became best known. It’s an inspiring journey for aspiring sommeliers to follow. And most inspiring of all is his sense of drive, and competitive spirit, which at first manifests in a childhood desire to be the world’s greatest football player, and then a teen’s desire to be the world’s greatest cyclist, and then – as an adult – he sets out to become the World’s Best Sommelier (as well as a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier – the only person in the world to ever achieve this trifecta).
Gerard’s tenacity and ambition is however always tempered by his charming and generous nature, which comes across by the bucketload in his autobiography. He generously shares both his defeat and victory in accumulating all his impressive titles, and never neglects to credit all the many people that helped him along his path – most of all his wife Nina. He also lavishes praise on his many mentees and colleagues, adding interesting details of their lives and achievements too.
While there are plenty of experience-based tips for upcoming sommeliers, MS and MW candidates, hoteliers and restaurateurs, the book is also filled with funny anecdotes from many years serving people at the table. It’s a sommelier’s confessional in the best way. Showing the lighter side of what happens between corks popping and plates being brought out.
While the competition titles he battled for seemed like gruelling tests and rollercoaster rides of emotion, he rather seems to delight in those challenges (and is almost certain that Nina enjoys the ride too). Where the greatest struggles seem to lie are in the trials and tribulations of starting Hotel du Vin in Winchester and later his family business, Hotel TerraVina. Although Hotel du Vin went on to be a great success, becoming a chain of boutique hotels and restaurants, TerraVina’s trajectory was cut short with the discovery that – at age 60 – Gerard had cancer of the oesophagus.
The last chapters of the book inevitably focus on the greatest challenge of his life – cancer – and one that he ultimately couldn’t overcome. With Nina wrapping up the Afterword, this feels like a book unfinished – a life tragically cut short. However it’s clear that Gerard never stopped having the attitude of a champion despite the circumstances, and his drive and energy is at its most inspirational of all in the last pages of his autobiography. Although his autobiography ends on page 238, Gerard’s is a legacy that will long live on. He is known for his many great achievements and titles, but remembered for being everyone’s favourite sommelier and loved by many as a great mentor and friend.
Tasting Victory: The Life and Wines of the World’s Favourite Sommelier by Gerard Basset is published by Unbound.
Review by Amanda Barnes