Gerard Francis Claude Basset is an OBE, former World Champion Sommelier and the only person to simultaneously hold the Master of Wine, Master Sommelier and MBA Wine honours. With more than 25 years of wine knowledge it is fair to say the co-founder of the Hotel du Vin Group and award-winning New Forest boutique hotel, Terra Vina, knows a thing or two about brands.
“It is always a delicate thing for a sommelier,” Basset says. “Some of the wines we serve are seen in the off-trade, some champagne brands for example, and the iconic wines are found everywhere. For brands that are less well-known it is a different matter.”
Depending on the establishment and the occasion, nine times out of 10 a consumer wants to drink something they don’t have chilling in their fridge.
Many people don’t wish to spend three times the amount of money on a bottle of wine in a restaurant when they can drink it for a fraction of the price in front of the television. “If you can buy it, usually it is not as exciting,” Basset argues. “We want something we are not going to eat or drink at home.”
A sommelier must have an extensive knowledge of the wines they serve if they stand a chance of answering myriad questions the customer seated at their table might throw at them. Research can only go so far and, as Basset points out, not all brands are geared for the on-trade.
“If they are not going to make it work, then it is a problem,” Basset says. One way of making this work is to encourage education and communication between the sommelier and the brand. “If a brand has designed an activity for the sommelier – trips to promote information and invite someone to discover the wine region – then that helps.”
It is often a generic body that arranges such a thing, “but it can be the brand”, Basset insists.
For some, he says, brands provide much-needed assurance. “It is like me buying a computer – if I see a brand I feel reassured. It is easy for us in the wine trade to understand what wine is and which to order or purchase, but for those who don’t, when you go to a restaurant you want to make sure you spend money on something you like.
“Not unlike a computer salesman, it is the role of the sommelier to not only have unparalleled knowledge of the product but also an understanding of customers’ needs to ensure they spend their money on the wines that best suit them.”
Over the course of his illustrious career Basset will have faced almost every consumer imaginable – and there are many different types. Too gracious to name names, Basset splits them into three categories: those who know a particular region, those who want to show off and those who are scared.
“They won’t view the wines in the same way,” he explains. “It is very important to try to find the right question to ask, to judge what type of consumer they are without being patronising.” Especially if they fall into the latter category.