Tasting Victory

By Gerard Basset

The Life & Wines of the World's Favourite Sommelier

Chapter 14 – Best Sommelier of Europe 1996

My wine competition career had not, after all, ground to a halt.

After my great competition year of 1992, I had moved my focus to the Master of Wine, and was convinced that I would never compete again for a sommelier title.

Indeed, in the later part of 1994, the Best Sommelier of Europe 1994 was taking place in Reims, Champagne and not for one second had I considered applying for it; when the Best Sommelier in the World 1995 took place in Tokyo, I ignored that too.

But in 1996, the year of the next Best Sommelier of Europe, it was different. After I’d won UK Sommelier of the Year in 1992, I’d won a trip to Champagne Ruinart, which included a dinner with the CEO of the company, Roland de Calonne and his charming wife. Champagne Ruinart were sponsors of a number of sommelier competitions, and the founder of the Best Sommelier of Europe. Mr de Calonne asked me to re-enter the competition. Before I could answer, he looked me in the eyes, and said, “Gerard, we are all citizens of Europe now. The European Union is getting bigger – Europe is the future! You must do the competition again!”

I politely and diplomatically agreed with him, but without great conviction. Mr De Calonne had been the CEO of Ruinart for a long time and was a very charismatic person. He was at once a gentleman, but also a very imposing personality, so when he spoke, even if you did not always agree with him, you took notice.

In life we can all experience a situation and be struck by it without straightaway realising it. This suggestion by Mr De Calonne was one of those situations. His words did not seem that significant to me then, but I would remember them for a long time to come.

When in early 1996, the question arose of who would represent the UK for The Best Sommelier of Europe, taking place in the autumn of 1996, the words of Mr De Calonne came back to me, with force.

By the end of 1995, we had been running the hotel for a bit more than a year and while we did not have it all sorted, Robin and I were getting better organised. Megan had become an excellent restaurant manager and that took a bit of pressure off me. Some days I didn’t have to appear until mid-afternoon, and so I had time in the mornings for competition preparation.

The Best Sommelier of Europe 1996 was going to be in October, so in May I calculated I had just enough time to prepare. It was a bit of a gamble, as really for such a competition you need more than just five or six months of preparation, but I reasoned that I might just be able to pull it off. I was also on the Master of Wine programme which was extremely useful.

The Academy of Food and Wine Service, the official body representing the UK at the Association Sommelier International wanted to send a strong UK candidate. When Jeremy Bennett, the president, heard that I was considering applying, he called me and we met. He told me that I would be the best person to represent the UK and he and his board members had agreed to select me if I wished to go.

In addition, I was lucky because the two most recent winners of the UK Sommelier of the Year, Henri Chapon in 1995 and Franck Massard in 1996, were French and unlike me, they did not hold British nationality and thus could not represent the UK in Europe. Champagne Ruinart, the European sponsor, only wanted competitors of the nationality of the country they represented. That made the case for my selection even easier.

I quickly formed a plan. I asked Henri Chapon MS, with whom I had become friends, to help me by setting some service, food and wine and tasting exercises once a month. I’d met Henri during my Chewton Glen days (Henri would work for us later on in 1997 at the Tunbridge Wells Hotel du Vin). When he was preparing for the UK Sommelier of the Year in 1995, I set up several training sessions for him. So I knew Henri would enjoy helping me in my quest to win the Best Sommelier of Europe 1996.

The next thing I did was to contact Le Creuset, the kitchen utensil company. I knew their managers well, as their head office was not far from Winchester and many of the Le Creuset Team held meetings at Hotel du Vin. I asked the managing director if Le Creuset would be happy to sponsor me. I wanted to buy a lot of bottles of wine for my blind tasting training sessions and sponsorship would help cover other costs. He quickly agreed and we set up a photo shoot session with me recommending their range of Le Creuset ‘Screwpull’ corkscrews.

In preparation for the tough and very wide-ranging theory section of the competition, I spent the first six weeks updating my files. I made sure I had the latest information about the different wine regions of the world. I redid some of my many wine maps; I completed, as needed, my files on viticulture and winemaking, and the same for wine history, wine laws and regulations, liqueurs, spirits, sake, beer, mineral water and even tea and coffee. I was ready to learn (and re-learn) it all.

Among the many exercises I did was to sit down and reproduce all the wine maps, complete with all the facts. When I checked my attempts against the original, I would re-do it all over again if I made a single mistake. I got up early every day to practice memory drills and, eventually, I was so exhausted that either my eyes would begin weeping, or I would fall asleep at my desk. But I didn’t stop.

For the blind tasting part, I bought a lot of wines, as well as plenty of miniatures of liqueurs and spirits. Every morning Nina would serve three wines, along with a series of six liqueurs and spirits in black glasses, so I had no clue as to what the liquid might be. One day I would give an oral summation of one wine, while writing about two; the next I would do the opposite, giving an oral summation of two wines, while writing about one. In the final months we increased the number of wines to six each day. My goal was to develop a deep tasting vocabulary, that was well-structured but not robotic. I had developed my own way to describe the wines, but wanted enough vocabulary variation that I wouldn’t sound repetitive. This is a difficult task, as it becomes impossible not to double up on words when comparing similar wines.

Nosing liqueurs or spirits from black glasses can sometimes be easier, because the colour of the beverage can be misleading. To ensure that I did as much blind tasting as I could, one of my sommeliers would prepare daily a series of liqueurs and spirits, and one or two wines.

In the summer of 1996, a young French sommelier called Vincent Gasnier had come to work with us. Vincent was passionate about wine competitions and on his days off, Vincent would come to the hotel or to my home to set blind tasting sessions for me. He always gave me his honest feedback and even though he was young, he often had some very valid, constructive criticisms. One day at home in my kitchen I was doing a series of six wines blind orally that Vincent had selected and prepared for me. By the end of the session, I had acquitted myself relatively well on the identification side of the wines, having uncovered grapes and regions for four of the wines, but annoyingly missed them for two of the wines. I asked Vincent aside of the identification aspect what he thought of my presentation. Vincent commented that while my vocabulary for describing the wines was excellent he thought I was not speaking from a voice of authority and so not engendering great confidence, even if my vocabulary was extremely precise. He added that I was looking at the glass too much when I was talking. Instead, I needed to stand upright and look at the audience like someone with plenty of self-assurance. I was surprised at first, but really grateful for such useful feedback. Vincent was right – I needed to project an aura of authority without being arrogant.

For both the service and food and wine matching sections, I was practicing regularly thanks to some tasks set up by my sommelier team at the hotel and once a month, for a full day, I would be put through my paces by Henri Chapon MS. We would work on service aspects such as my decanting skill, trying to improve the technique and the speed. The goal was for my skills to become second nature to me, so I could execute them perfectly, while thinking of other issues, the way an experienced driver doesn’t think about the brakes or gearbox, but instead focuses on the road and the traffic. Henri would also imagine some tricky scenarios to make it more challenging. For instance, if we were doing a food and wine matching exercise, he could come up with a menu more suited to white wine, but the instructions could be that the guests only drink red wine, to see if I could come up with an imaginative, credible and suitable answer. We both found the exercises very stimulating.

The competition was held in Champagne and three days before the competition, Nina and I left home early in the morning to drive to Reims. It would mean we would be arriving mid to late afternoon. I wanted to arrive a few days before in order to relax and be really prepared. Because we were driving, I could take all my training equipment: my theory folders, books, four cases of wine, a case full of liqueur and spirit miniatures, some tasting glasses, my uniform and a tricky decanter with a small opening and a wine basket, so I could practice decanting in my room.

You can’t make much difference by practicing in the last two days, but it was psychologically comforting to have all those items with me. All 48 of the bottles did get opened, thanks to Nina setting up blind tastings, and I did a lot of nosing with the miniatures.

The day before the competition, a dinner was organised for the candidates, presidents of national sommelier associations, followers and journalists. We had to come dressed in our uniforms two hours before the dinner, as official photos would be taken. It is always an exciting moment when you suddenly discover who the other competitors are. I knew a few of them from past competitions, but many were new to me as I had been out of the circuit for four years already.

Then there was a pre-dinner drink, a glass of Champagne Ruinart, then the dinner, with a welcome speech from Roland de Calonne. Ideally, as a candidate you would want to have a light dinner and go to your room early, but regrettably it was not possible – Champagne Ruinart had put on a superb dinner. In addition, all the important instructions for the competition day were issued at the end of the dinner, so we had to stay until the last moment.

The dinner was delicious and the different cuvées of Ruinart served with it were sumptuous, but like most of the candidates, I ate moderately and hardly drank the Champagnes as I wanted to be in perfect condition the following morning.

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