William Wouters – President, Belgium Sommelier Association

28 Feb 2019

In 1994 or 1996, I don’t remember exactly, we had a reunion with a bunch of crazy sommeliers from different nationalities at the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester, Hampshire, which is about a 90-minute drive southwest of of London, in the countryside.

I think we were about 14 sommeliers attending this highlight of conviviality, where every sommelier was bringing at least one magnum of wines with great reputations. Two friends of mine and myself were going to take the hovercraft from Calais to Dover, and then drive on to London to join part of the group at a lunch. During this lunch, we decided to surprise our friend Gérard. As he had just started his hotel in Winchester, the idea was to buy toy Winchesters at Hamleys, in London, and take them to this idyllic small city in the middle of Hampshire. Winchester has an extremely British atmosphere, with its nearby stunning coastline, beautiful countryside and of course its beautiful Cathedral, Great Hall and Queen’s Eleanor’s medieval gardens.

We arrived before dark, so that you could still see things quite clearly. The Hotel du Vin was a very classical building, perfectly situated in Winchester, with a bit of a Victorian style. We were warmly welcomed by Nina and shown to our rooms. There we changed and put on our tuxedos and bow ties, while on our feet, we put on white socks and fins – the ones used for diving in the sea. This was an inside joke: being sommeliers in high-end Michelin star restaurants, we looked like penguins, in our daily work, back then. So you can imagine a bunch of very stylish looking lads coming down the stairs in this very British atmosphere, but wearing fins and holding up toy Winchesters. Completely hilarious! Poor Nina and Gérard didn’t know what was happening to them. The only thing Gérard could say was, in his typical “Franglais” way of speaking, “Please feel free to take off your fins and let them dry next to the open fire. I can imagine you had quite a swim coming from the other side of the Channel. And please, put the Winchesters in the closet, it will be safer.” This was the real Gérard Basset sense of humour, always sharp and classy.

Later that evening, many magnums later, we had an unforgettable moment of a cappella singing, with Gérard as a full-grown tenor. This is the image of Gérard I will always keep: a super professional who never took himself too seriously. He was just a very nice human being!