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Michèle Chantôme Interview

ASI: You are lovingly referred to by many as the ‘godmother of sommeliers.’ Tell us a bit about your connection to the association and why you are such a passionate and long-term supporter of the sommellerie?

MC: For a long time, I was nicknamed the ‘godmother of sommeliers’, then, with age, the ‘mother of sommeliers.’ My love affair with the sommelier profession began in the 1960s when I was in contact with teachers from hospitality schools with whom I used to organize competitions as part of my PR activities for Cognac and Champagne houses. I devoted myself more precisely to sommeliers through the Ruinart Trophy first in France and then throughout Europe, in collaboration with all the national associations and of course with ASI. I was even responsible for encouraging some national associations to be created. It’s been a beautiful adventure that has lasted nearly thirty years. Over this time, many fantastic encounters have been had, and deep friendships have been born.

 

ASI: You have been bestowed recently with the title of ASI Ambassador and you are the Global Ambassador for the Club des Sommeliers. Tell us a little about what that Ambassador role entails and explain to us the vision behind the ‘Club’.

MC: Being officially named ‘ASI Ambassador’ is a rewarding and challenging title. I have been working with and representing ASI on the international scene more or less since the 80s. Being the worldwide ambassador of the ‘Club’ makes sense, as I have always been in contact with all its members.

The Club des Sommeliers is very dear to my heart. I have been wishing for its creation for a long time. Indeed, it seems natural to me that the sommeliers who have been in the limelight thanks to ASI, whether in contests or via the ASI Diploma, should be united under the same banner, as a symbol of excellence. These people are the true ambassadors of sommellerie in the world. They represent the profession and personalize it through ASI.

Thanks to the ‘Club’ we will be able to bring to light many more hidden talents, showing the true faces of ASI. The ‘Club’ is a collective of individuals driven by the same passion. To be part of the world’s elite of sommeliers is a dream, isn’t it? The Club will reinforce the feeling of being members of the same family.

 

ASI: We’ve just announced the Gerard Basset Lifetime Achievement award winner. The development of this award is a passion project of yours. Can you tell us why you wanted to create this award and what it symbolizes to ASI?

MC: Gerard Basset has always been special to me. I met him in 1992 when he became Best Sommelier of the UK (United Kingdom) and then Vice World Champion in Rio. I was immediately struck by his love of the profession, his curiosity, his determination, his sense of human relationships and sharing. The talent? He said it wasn’t innate, that it had to be worked on. And god knows that he worked hard until he finally won the world title in 2010 in Chile. In the meantime, he had become Best Sommelier of Europe in 1996 and Master of Wine, among other prestigious distinctions including founding Wine Hotels, a truly innovative concept.

Gerard was a true legend during his lifetime. He passed away much too soon, but some of us can still feel his presence. He gave a lot to the sommelier profession and to ASI, of which he was secretary general and director of the Sommeliers Contests Commission at the request of Shinya Tasaki. It was in this capacity that I worked closely with him. It was a real privilege.

Nina, whom I have been close to for years, has always supported him. She is now making sure his image lives on. It seemed logical to both of us, and to their son Romané, to create this award in homage to Gérard. To associate the name of Gérard Basset with that of ASI and the quest for excellence gives even more strength to the sommelier’s message. In fact, my first idea was to give a special award to Gérard on the occasion of the ASI 50th anniversary, but unfortunately, he received it posthumously. Therefore, it is logical that this distinction, which crowns an entire career should now bear his name.

 

ASI: There have been a lot of positive changes since the new team was elected last November. A big focus of ASI is now education. What do you think this will mean for sommeliers in general and specifically how will this impact the ASI Diploma?

MC: Finally, the senior executives of ASI are becoming aware of the importance of the diploma. Along with Giuseppe Vaccarini, we have been anticipating this recognition for years. However, it must be said that when this exam was created, the goal was to certify professional sommeliers after a few years of experience and thus create a level of reference worldwide. There was no question of education at the time. Over the years, requests for training have come in and this has not escaped the new ASI management team. Educating young people is a vast project, but it will be an opportunity to share with the students the experience of our champions, competition winners and certified sommeliers. We are going to set up a real synergy between the different divisions of ASI concerned about the future of the sommelier profession. New standards will guide both candidates and jurors. With this focus, we can assume that the candidates for the ASI Diploma will be more numerous as they will have the tools to prepare themselves. Another important point: this means ASI will no longer be associated just with its contests, as was often the case. A new balance is being established for the status and image of the sommelier profession worldwide.

 

ASI: You’ve been described as a connection to ASI’s past, present and future. Knowing both where ASI was and where it is now, how do you think ASI will evolve over the next few years?

MC: I’m not Pythia… so how can I predict the future of ASI?  It’s true that we can only build the future based on the past and that’s what our current leaders have understood. The philosophy is to not deny anything of the past but learn all the lessons from it…

Look at the evolution of the ASI Diploma! We must be sufficiently attentive to adapt to unforeseen situations such as those created by COVID. A certain flexibility is necessary. Each test makes us stronger and more inventive.

For a long time ASI has remained extremely discreet and was mainly talked about during its competitions. However, until 2008 we only had the world contest more or less every three years. In the meantime, the Annual General Assemblies organized annually in various countries have also become an opportunity to put the sommelier profession in the spotlight.

ASI has developed its communication considerably in recent years, and continues to do so by adding to its team volunteer communicators who are passionate about new media, allowing us to reach all sommeliers or future sommeliers around the world in real time. Informing the general public is also essential to make the profession known, but communicating within the ASI, with the 62 national associations that currently make it up – when I first knew ASI, there were barely a dozen – is essential.

ASI, according to article 1 of its statutes, must promote the sommellerie through the development of associations throughout the world, the improvement and enhancement of the profession, the defence of its ethics, the creation of a ‘Club’… The current board is fully aware of these objectives and has decided to achieve them step by step, with determination. The emphasis on diversity is also a sign of this. ASI must be ‘the’ world reference for the profession of sommelier.

We are on the right track! Especially if we manage to maintain this spirit of conviviality, this feeling of belonging to a family, the beautiful ASI family which is constantly growing. In my opinion, the search for perfection is positive, but let’s not fall into the trap of over-professionalism that would make a sommelier a robot. Each one’s personal equation must make the difference. Let’s not forget that the sommelier, as our friend Serge Dubs says so eloquently, “is a merchant of happiness!”

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