Sommelier to hotelier with an MBA along the way
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To say Gérard Basset, OBE, jet black hair and matching moustache, is a wine connoisseur would be an understatement. The 56-year-old holds an array of titles: Master of Wine, Master Sommelier, as well as qualifying from Bordeaux Ecole de Management, now part of Kedge business school, with a wine MBA.
But it would be fair to say he stumbled into his career rather than planned it. A junior gastronome he was not. Yet as a boy he enjoyed his mother’s homely fare, including jams and pastries. It is her blackcurrant liquor – made from fruit in the garden – that sticks in his mind, perhaps the only early indication of his future profession as a sommelier.
Born in Saint-Etienne (“not the most exciting town”), he travelled to England aged 20 to watch his local football team play Liverpool. He liked the country and returned to find a job as a kitchen porter, before graduating to waiting.
Chef school seemed the logical next step. But after qualifying in France and working at a Michelin-starred restaurant, he realised he did not like the work one bit. “There was always shouting,” he reflects.
His colleagues never praised him for a job well done, preferring to point out his mistakes, however trivial. So he packed it in and returned to work in England as a waiter in a low-budget hotel that brightened its food by dyeing its rice red, orange and green. Being French, he says, meant that his English peers bowed to his wine knowledge. “People thought I knew a lot [about wine]. I knew nothing.”
But his colleagues ultimately did him a favour by setting him on his career path as sommelier then hotelier. In 1994 he founded the Hotel du Vin, which he built into a chain of mid-market hotels that traded on its wine offering, before selling it to MWB. He then embarked on his MBA and set up the Hotel TerraVina with his wife, Nina.
Sitting inside the small, cosy hotel in Hampshire, everything is muted beige and fawn. Outside the New Forest beckons: the trees a beautiful blaze of red, gold and brown.
In 1988 he became a sommelier at a Michelin-starred hotel, Chewton Glen, a luxury spa-hotel in Hampshire, where he met his future wife.
Robin Hutson, the manager, supported his passion for wine and gave him time to study. Mr Basset eventually became head sommelier. His ambition to become a brand ambassador for a big winery was challenged when Mr Hutson suggested they open a hotel together.
Money, or a lack of it, was Mr Basset’s first thought. He had taken out a 100 per cent mortgage on a flat, which in 1989 was worth £52,000. A couple of years later it was worth £34,000. But his business partner convinced him they could find investors.
The idea was to offer good food, good wine and simple service at a reasonable price. “At the time not many people were doing it.” In 1994, they opened Hotel du Vin in the centre of Winchester.
Important to the funding was securing sponsorship from wine brands for individual rooms. Learning about business was very much on-the-job. “It was the first time I heard words like ‘P & L’, ‘balance sheet’; all these things.”
As the business grew, opening a second, third and fourth hotel, they forged a more formal structure and recruited further investors, including Anita and Gordon Roddick, founders of the Body Shop, the natural cosmetics group.
“We were lucky, things were going well. When things are going well you’re a bit more relaxed, you’re not so attentive to all the little things because at the end of the day money is coming in, you’re making a profit. It was a very nice time and it was all a bit easy.”
The wine, he says, was the hotel’s unique selling point. But there was no snobbery, he insists. “If you wanted to have Coca-Cola, frankly we didn’t care. We didn’t want to scare people.”
As they were building hotel number seven, they were approached by MWB which owned the Malmaison hotel group. So in 2004 the pair sold up for £66m, earning Mr Basset £2.5m after tax.
He decided to study for an executive MBA in wine and spirits at Bordeaux, which he began in 2006. Why? “Maybe because I left school with very little study?”
After completing his MBA, he realised he missed working. “What happens when you’ve been very busy and you stop suddenly, emails come less and less, the phone never rings. It’s great the first month or two but then you start to feel a bit restless.”
He bought the hotel, now Hotel TerraVina, with his wife at the start of 2007 and opened in August. “Things were going well.”
Then Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September 2008. If he had known the financial crisis was imminent he would probably have delayed his hotel’s opening.
Those customers he did attract were ruthless hagglers. “Before the recession people didn’t discuss price much. The mentality was ‘if you don’t want [a room] other people will have it’.” But suddenly he had to negotiate prices.
The growth of internet booking companies has made the environment more difficult, he says. “That’s something that has done a lot of damage. A lot of people won’t book direct . . . If [the intermediary bookings agencies] sell they take a big commission. The internet has created middle men.”
He has no plans to buy any more hotels this time round, preferring to focus on TerraVina and give talks on wine, increasingly in China. “[China] is extremely interesting for wine. A small percentage of people with a lot of money are interested in art, luxury and wines.”
He likes the freedom of owning his own hotel and can come and go as he chooses. But on the down side, “your mind is always on it. You never leave a business because you’re always responsible. You go on holiday and you don’t know what could happen, you’re still on call.”
Despite the difficulties, he says, the hotel has always made a small profit, even if that meant he did not draw a salary. “We are certainly not making a fortune, that’s for sure.”
During his time in the UK he has seen the restaurant and hotel industry transformed. In the 80s, most were “not very good, very average”. Now, “everything has improved, [the scene is] very vibrant . . . it’s completely different.”
He insists he has no regrets. “You have to learn. Not everything is positive but if I was to do a column with minus and plus there would be a lot in the pluses.”