Super somms: Gerard Basset and Ronan Sayburn

Attention to detail

On the floor, attention to detail is also paramount, adds Basset, recalling an encounter at a hotel in Beaminster where he asked for a bottle of village Mersault, only to be presented with a more expensive premier cru. “Before I could say anything the sommelier said: ‘I’m terribly sorry, the Mersault you ordered is out but we will give you this one at that same price.’ The wine tasted better because we were getting a bargain and it was dealt with very professionally. If you don’t have a particular wine, offer a better one that’s a bit more expensive at the same price. It’s a little thing but it makes a big difference.”

Many sommeliers have moved through the ranks at Hotel du Vin, which was founded by Basset with his business partner Robin Hutson, who had worked with Basset at Chewton Glen as its managing director. In 2004 the pair sold the chain to their closest rivals, the hotel group Malmaison. Both brands are now owned by Frasers Hospitality, which bought the group for £363m in 2015. But Hotel du Vin’s reputation for turning out top sommeliers remains. Asked what made Hotel du Vin such a successful training ground, Basset says he was never afraid to delegate power.

“If I discovered a wine I would say to my sommelier: ‘This wine is fantastic, it should be on our list.’ But of the 600-800 wines on a list, 90% was chosen by the sommelier, who was given budgets and guidelines. I didn’t want to see 90% Californian wines, but if you like Californian wines you could have more on the list than Australian, for example, and that motivated them. If you say to a chef ‘this is what you are going to cook’ you are not going to have a good chef. If you let them express themselves then they will do it better because it’s their own recipe. It’s the same with a sommelier.”

Talking about which restaurants in London today offer a similar springboard for budding sommeliers, Basset singles out 67 Pall Mall. The club has a team of 29, including 17 sommeliers, led by Sayburn, and routinely offers WSET and Court of Master Sommelier courses, as well as incentive trips, while also encouraging staff to enter competitions. “The people that want to work here are ambitious and motivated,” says Sayburn. “If they want to do competitions or exams we do training sessions. So they know that they are getting a lot of education, support and encouragement. We have a lot of good sommeliers, a lot of the wine trade come here, as well as journalists, so for a young sommelier, working at 67 Pall Mall is fantastic.”

Wine education

Both Master Sommeliers themselves, it would be easy for Basset and Sayburn to extol the virtues of wine education, and implore ambitious sommeliers to take up their MS exams. While both agree that passing the examination was a career highlight, neither believe such a qualification is essential.

“There are 249 Master Sommeliers in the world, so when you pass it’s an incredible feeling,” says Sayburn. “It gives people a focus and something to aim for. Whether they pass or not, the action of taking these exams and concentrating on tasting makes people better sommeliers, but it’s not something you do so you can get a better job or reputation.”

Basset cautions against jumping into such a qualification. “Only do it if you are prepared to put in the time, otherwise it’s a waste of your time and money, or that of the employer that pays for it.

“Be honest with yourself. Are you going to spend a lot of time revising outside of work, spend your holidays in vineyards, taste a lot of wine and go to trade tastings? If you would prefer to spend time with your boyfriend or girlfriend I respect that, but don’t put yourself forward for an exam like this because you are not going to succeed. These exams are worthwhile, but they are not the answer to everything and it doesn’t mean you know everything.”

Instead, Basset offers a more practical piece of advice: “Read a book about selling technique. Understand that your job is to sell, which can be interpreted as old fashioned, like a man trying to sell second-hand cars. But if you don’t sell in a restaurant you won’t have a job. There’s nothing wrong with selling if it’s done well.”

Given the increasing influence of social media and the internet, this skill is all the more important. “Now people understand and know about wines and can very quickly take a picture of the bottle and know how much it’s is in the shop next door.

“When I started it was completely different. People had no clue about the price of a wine because there was no internet and no way to find out. The sommelier needs to be aware of that. Social media also means a lot of pictures of the restaurant, the wine and the glasses. It’s very transparent.”

The role of the sommelier is not without its challenges, but London remains one of the best places in the world to carve out a career in wine. “It’s a great industry,” concludes Sayburn. “It involves long hours and hard work, but it’s very rewarding. I travel all over the world, I get to drink great wines and eat great food in social circumstances. What’s not to like?”

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