What do you do when someone you respect but don’t know that well dies before his time? You buy their memoir. It is a small gesture but one that seems like the best way to pay homage to a life well lived. When Gérard Basset passed away, like thousands of others in the wine and the hospitality trade, I ordered a copy of Tasting Victory, the story of the life and wines of the world’s favourite sommelier.
I don’t read many memoirs though. I prefer fiction, which is why it took me four months to pick up Tasting Victory from the mounting pile of unread books on my bedside table. I devoured it in a couple of days.
Tasting Victory reads like a novel. One of the cardinal rules of fiction is jeopardy: the main character cannot have it easy, they must always be seen to battle against the odds. Gerard’s life, as described in his own words, was a constant fight, from his humble childhood in a French provincial town to his final battle against crooked business associates and then cancer.
That is the first lesson of a remarkable book about a remarkable man. The most awarded man in the history of wine, the star sommelier, entrepreneur and hotelier, whom people would point out to each other at tastings and approach in reverent awe, definitely didn’t have anything handed over to him on a plate. I felt exhausted only reading the story of his life.
Gérard describes himself harshly in the epilogues to his memoir, writing that he was neither blessed ‘with the strength and skills of the great athletes or sportsmen [he] admired’, nor did he ‘enjoy the stunning good looks of the likes of Paul Newman or Brad Pitt’ – few people do – nor did he ‘have the brilliant and sharp intellect of Gary Kasparov or Steven Hawking.’ He acknowledges though his ‘rock solid determination’. This is what makes Tasting Victory inspirational: it makes you feel anybody can succeed as long as they work hard enough at it.
My favourite Bible parable is the one about talents: how a master goes away, entrusting three of his servants with silver talents. When he returns, he punishes equally the servant who’s buried his loot under a tree for fear of losing it it and the one who’s squandered his. I used to find that decision grossly unfair until I understood the moral of the story: you should make the most of what you’ve been given, and that involves taking risks. Gérard definitely took risks and made the most of his innate talents.
Others may have glossed over the sheer graft, dedication and sacrifices necessary to secure the many accolades he garnered in his lifetime. He doesn’t. He writes about the years of drifting before he found his calling. He dwells on the ups and downs of his journey to the top and recalls his failures as well as his successes, analysing the former in an almost forensic manner. He details his preparation for every single competition, the minutia of revising for both theory and tasting practice, how he relied on friends and associates, not hesitating to enrol outside expertise to help him achieve his self-imposed goals.
Nina, his wife, first appears in the middle of page 53. On page 54, she’s moved in with Gérard. In real life it took a mere two weeks. For the rest of the story, she is at Gérard’s side, working with him, driving him around, preparing endless tasting exercises, cheering him up in his moments of doubt, comforting him in failure, celebrating the wins and nursing him in the final months. Is there an award that could be invented to honour the dedication of the Ninas of this world? Would Gérard have achieved so much without the constant ‘calm support’ of his wife? Reading about that exemplary relationship made me well up a bit, I admit.
Maybe because Gérard and I were both born French yet chose to make our lives in the UK, I found the early chapters of Tasting Victory funny and eminently relatable. Like him, I didn’t have a TV at home till I was well in my teens, a somewhat isolating experience in a school playground. I also shared his initial prejudices about England and, like him, found them quickly dispelled by my first visits over here. Like him I was bowled over by how welcoming to Frenchies British people were. It was of course long before people like us were called ‘citizens of nowhere’ by a British Prime Minister.
Gérard’s humanity and kindness shine throughout the book, a perfect foil to his determination and desire to achieve. Apart from an amusing dig at the ‘friend’ who always does better – don’t we all have one? – , it is the story of a life and career enriched and supported by love and friendship and of someone who enjoyed celebrating good times with his many friends. This was evidenced in the crowd that attended the celebration of his life at Winchester Cathedral and Guildhall in June 2019.
I didn’t know Gérard that well but I’d like to share two personal anecdotes which illustrate further his humanity, kindness and generosity of spirit.
I was awarded the French Ordre du Mérite Agricole on the same day as Gérard. His celebrity status made what would be his final accolade PR-worthy in the wine world. Yet the pictures he distributed to the media all showed the four recipients awarded on the day. A lesser man would have ensured the limelight shone on him alone.
We worked together on the promotion of French wines when I ran Sopexa UK. None of the hired talents we used were ever unpleasant to me but unfortunately the same cannot be said of the junior members of the team or trainees. Yet all of them adored Gérard. One junior, in particular, once ran to me in tears of gratitude: she’d messed up during an event, I can’t remember how, and was petrified Gérard would scold her. Not only did he not say a harsh word to her but he took time to reassure her that mistakes do happen and that she would learn from the occasion.
If you haven’t already, I urge you to buy and read Taste Victory. It is an inspirational book and a fitting tribute to ‘un grand monsieur’, as we say in French.