Ask any sommelier who their biggest inspiration in the world of wine is and two names come up time and time again.
The first is Gerard Basset OBE, MS, MW, MBA, OIV, MSc, who is, without question, the most respected and decorated sommelier in the world. Basset is held in Messiah-like regard by legions of sommeliers who look up to his knowledge and dogged determination to gain not only the Master Sommelier but also Master of Wine qualification, and also to his faultless modesty, charm and dedication in supporting the next generation. Not one to court attention, and currently battling terminal cancer of the oesophagus, Basset is a gentleman in the truest sense. Many a protégé has followed in his footsteps, among them Xavier Rousset MS, Dimitri Mesnard MS, Laurent Richet MS and Matthieu Longuère MS.
“I came from France but I wasn’t a sommelier when I arrived in the UK,” recalls Basset. “Because I was French they put me front of house and had me serving the wine, but I didn’t know much about it, so I began to learn. I did courses and went back to France to do a sommelier exam, then I did a competition in 1986. I didn’t want to but my boss suggested it. I reached the final and got hooked. I thought: ‘If I’m in the final now, maybe next time I could win.’ From then on my passion in life was to be a top sommelier and I was going to try to get as far as I could. I might not reach all my goals, but I had to aim high.”
Basset’s career began in earnest in 1988, when he became head sommelier at the Michelin-starred Chewton Glen in the New Forest, Hampshire. He earned his Master Sommelier qualification in 1989 and became an MW in 1998. In 1994 he co-founded the Hotel du Vin chain of restaurants – a hotbed for young sommelier talent – and in 2007 opened the renowned wine-focused TerraVina, a boutique luxury hotel in Hampshire, which has only recently been scaled back to a bed and breakfast (Spot in the Woods) to give Basset and his wife, Nina, more time to themselves. In 2010, he won the World Sommelier Championship, which was followed by an OBE in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Basset’s influence on a generation of sommeliers has been immense. So it’s fitting that the second sommelier profiled here, Ronan Sayburn MS, the director of wine at London’s 67 Pall Mall, credits Basset with giving him his first big break in wine, and has also built a reputation for supporting the next generation.
A Yorkshire lad, from Scarborough, Sayburn saw Basset’s face on the cover of a magazine as he was preparing to embark on a career as a chef. He contacted the sommelier, who put him in touch with the team at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, where, in 1996, Sayburn was given his first break as a sommelier.
A bit of a novelty
“Ninety per cent of the front of house was Italian or French,” recalls Sayburn. “I was the only English sommelier. There weren’t any English sommeliers around at that time. My French head sommelier would talk to his friends and say ‘I have an English one’ and they would say ‘no, it can’t be true’! He would hold the phone up and I would say ‘hello’ and they would go: ‘It is true!’ So I was a bit of a novelty.”
Sayburn has since worked at some of London’s most revered restaurants, including Pied à Terre, The Greenhouse, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, 45 Park Lane and, as executive head sommelier of the Gordon Ramsay Group for eight years, Royal Hospital Road, Claridge’s, The Connaught, The Savoy, Boxwood Café and Maze, to name a few. Sayburn describes his time with Ramsay as a “rollercoaster”, opening dozens of restaurants worldwide while managing a team of 45 sommeliers, but that Ramsay had a soft side. “It was hard work and Gordon was very demanding, but in the early days he was kind of a big brother to all of us. We’d have chefs splitting up with girlfriends and he was always the big-brother figure, or helping people out with their rent. He gave me his Aston Martin one weekend to go visit my sister in the Lake District. He was a good guy.”
So what can two of the biggest figures in wine teach us about the evolving role of the sommelier, especially in London, which has become increasingly cut-throat as restaurants fight to turn a profit?