Gerard and Nina Basset opened their new venture, Hotel TerraVina, deep in Hampshire's New Forest, late last year. It was only a matter of time before Caterer checked in. Joanna Wood reports
Everyone in the industry knows about Gerard Basset. He is probably the most knowledgeable and qualified sommelier in the UK (we're talking Master Sommelier, Master of Wine, wine MBA). He was also, in 1994, one of the founding partners of the phenomenally successful and trend-setting Hotel du Vin group. Since the boutique bistro-hotel chain was sold to the Malmaison group in 2004 for £66.4m, the question on everybody's lips has been, "What will he do next?"
Well, now we know what Gerard is doing next. After taking some time out of hospitality, he has returned to the coalface to open Hotel TerraVina in the New Forest with his wife, Nina - whose credentials, though less vaunted than those of her husband, are equally impressive: they include a spell as an AA hotel inspector, plus helping to launch Hotel du Vin and a stint as a hospital catering manager.
The Bassets have hospitality in their veins, clearly, but their path back to the hotel world was by no means a given. "We didn't intend to do another hotel after selling Hotel du Vin," Nina confesses, "but we both missed working in the business and in the end we came to the conclusion that the only thing we really knew how to do fairly well was looking after people in a hotel. And to be honest, it's quite difficult to choose where to go on New Year's Eve when you don't have a hotel of your own!"
Joking aside, the couple did consider other business options, including, for Gerard, the wine consultancy route - a path he had trodden to some extent on an ad hoc basis anyway. "When I've done consultancy as a favour for friends I haven't enjoyed it, though," he says. "The thing is, in the end you don't choose, you recommend, and people don't always go with your advice. If I have my own wine list, I can do whatever I want." (See Caterer, 25 October 2007, page 28 for The List report).
Personal control of the end product is obviously important for Gerard and Nina and it's one of the reasons that they have no backers in their new project, preferring not to dilute the decision-making processes entailed in running a hotel, or indeed the hotel's refurbishment programme, the bulk of which was carried out last summer to a Nina-envisioned design (more about that later). They've funded the project out of their own pockets and with a bank loan from Lloyds TSB.
Gerard freely admits he made "good money" out of the Hotel du Vin sale, before adding, "Good money, not silly money - £2.4m - enough to pay off the mortgage."
Given the Bassets' hands-on philosophy, it's no surprise to find them both very much in evidence at Hotel TerraVina. In fact, the personal touch of their presence is one of the defining things about the hotel. "If things go wrong, we can rectify them immediately because we are on site," Gerard says, breaking off to tend to some departing guests.
From the outside the building is modest, unprepossessing even. There's no grand statement in its architecture and somehow that fits the demeanour of this quiet, professional-to-the-fingertips couple. Formerly Buskett's Lawn hotel, TerraVina comprises a central red-brick facade with two timber-clad wings on either side. The Bassets bought the site for £1.2m a year ago and have invested £1.4m in a stylish face-lift.
Step inside and you can see at once a design trace-line back to Hotel du Vin in the clean, modern lines and comfortable, contemporary furniture. There are 11 en suite bedrooms, each named after a red or white wine, and some have roof terraces or private garden areas outside. Then there's a 55-seat restaurant with a 30-seat veranda for alfresco dining on sunny days a private dining room an outdoor swimming pool a pleasant, secluded garden and (not surprisingly) a large cellar.
It turns out that the decision to open a boutique hotel in the New Forest was mostly pragmatic. The size and price of the hotel was right and it is within 30 minutes of the Bassets' home in New Milton, where they have lived ever since they both worked (and first met) at the town's renowned country-house hotel, Chewton Glen, nearly two decades ago.
"We've always been based in Hampshire and the New Forest is definitely changing," Gerard explains. "Alex Aitkin is reopening Le Poussin at Parkhill hotel, Lyndhurst, soon and that will be in the top league, with a modern spa - it will be a great competitor to Chewton Glen.
"For us, being close to Winchester and Southampton is important in terms of business: we have customers who have followed us from Chewton Glen and Hotel du Vin, and we're well placed for the corporate market. We're also beginning to get people down from London on the weekends."
Back to TerraVina's design. The colour palette in its public spaces is based on browns and terracottas and there is a lot of wood in evidence, reflecting the forest setting on the hotel's doorstep. Accents of green give a pleasing lift to the senses. The restaurant has a central high-backed banquette of tan leather and an open kitchen. Part of the cellar is visible at one end, giving it something of a Napa Valley feel. Surprisingly, in our image-led age, Nina dispensed with professional interior design advice, relying instead on her own experience and instinct.
One of Nina's main criteria was to source as much local labour and materials as possible. In fact the local links at TerraVina are far too numerous to mention, but they include local craftsmen such as "Alan" from nearby Beaulieu (who made a spiral staircase leading up to the first floor), Christchurch-based Peter Farnham of Craftwood Interiors (ground-floor furniture), Winchester-based toiletries supplier Long Barn (Hampshire lavender), photographer Kate Taylor of Dorset Seascapes (lots of New Forest landscapes, despite the name), and artist Howard Mathurine, whose huge canvas of wine corks dominates a cosy corner of the small hotel's small bar.
Food, of course, is always a good lifeline for local suppliers and head chef Rory Duncan (formerly of Chez Nico, One Aldwych and Driftwood hotel in Cornwall) is busy rooting out Hampshire and Dorset sources. It's an on-going process but Duncan already has a Romsey butcher, Barry Drummond, on board for meats and local game, and some fish comes from local ports such as Poole. A reputable wild mushroom supplier who can deliver the quantity he needs is proving elusive, however, even though the New Forest is on his doorstep. "You die without a steady supplier, even if you put it on as specials," he says, ruefully.
Unlike some members of the TerraVina team (assistant general manager/sommelier Anke Hartmann, sommelier Laura Rhys and Tiffany Ferreira, who is in charge of reception), Jamaican-raised Duncan hadn't worked with the Bassets before. But he has fitted in easily with their vision of delivering a stylish product in relaxed circumstances (in his case, tasty Mediterranean-leaning dishes, often with sophisticated textures and flavours).
"Considering they have only been working together for a short time, everybody's already fantastically loyal to each other," Nina says. "I think that's because we did our opening very quietly and slowly so they had time to adjust and fine-tune before the Christmas rush."
TerraVina's quiet opening is a lesson for any hotelier. It prevented a stampede of national restaurant and hotel reviewers from rampaging through TerraVina's doors before the hotel had found its groove. "I wanted to make sure that we knew what we were doing," Gerard explains. "We did some training before opening, but to be honest the best training is always done on the job."
So determined were the Bassets not to run before they could walk that they forwent the services of a PR agent for TerraVina's opening. However, since word seeped out that the hotel had opened its doors, a steady trickle of journalists have stepped over the threshold and TerraVina has been now been mentioned to greater or lesser degrees in all the major weekend papers. It even appeared briefly in Channel Five's Hotel Inspector programme as an example of how to get things right.
It's all very satisfying for the Bassets but they're not resting on their laurels. They've employed a PR agency for the 2008, reckoning that the "second push" is a far more important period of a new hotel's life than its opening, which always has novelty interest.
So what of the future? Are we seeing the birth of a TerraVina group? Gerard is ruling nothing out: "It would be very pretentious to plan too far at this stage, but if this works it will give us the freedom to do what we want. The first thing is to make this work."
The Basset graduates
It's fair to say that Gerard Basset has earned the title of "Godfather of Wine" in the UK. His own achievements in sommelier competitions and his professional and academic wine credentials are second to none. Even more importantly, pretty much any sommelier worth his salt working in the UK has been influenced or trained by him.
The legion of Basset protégés ranges from Gordon Ramsay Holdings' ex-director of wine Ronan Sayburn, whom Basset advised and helped get his first job at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, to London's current toast of the town, Xavier Rousset.
Joint-proprietor, Texture, London
Rousset's first UK job was with Hotel du Vin in Winchester in 1998. He was part of the team that opened the Bristol Hotel du Vin, eventually leaving the group to become head sommelier at two-Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. In 2002 he won the UK Sommelier of the Year award, staged by the Academy of Food and Wine Service, and he is also a Master Sommelier. In September 2007 he opened Texture restaurant in London with chef Aggi Sverrisson.
• "I come from the same town as Gerard, St Etienne, and read about him in an article in a local paper 10 years ago. Seeing what he had achieved inspired me to write to him and ask for a job. I knew absolutely nothing about wine before I worked at Hotel du Vin in Winchester in 1998 - just that white was white and red was red.
"Gerard encouraged me to learn and once he saw that I was interested he sent me to sommelier school in the Loire valley. He's one of those people who is very patient but he likes everything to be right about wine, otherwise he blows his top! I remember once, when I was at Winchester, I hadn't ensured that a bottle of wine was at the right temperature. He wasn't pleased!"
Manager, Casa Bodega, Romsey, Hampshire
Walter was Basset's assistant sommelier at Chewton Glen between 1991 and 1994 and took over as head sommelier of the award-winning country-house hotel when Basset left to launch the Hotel du Vin chain. He won the UK Sommelier of the Year competition in 1994.
• "When I first worked with Gerard, I had an interest in wine but not much expertise and he was very influential in my career, particularly in encouraging me to enter (and then helping me to train) for competitions. They're a great way to develop your tasting ability. He's very enthusiastic about wine and very driven. Actually there's only wine in Gerard's life and he's very, very competitive. He's certainly one of the world's greatest sommeliers - just look at the people who've trained with him that have gone on to great success. He's a great motivator."
Head sommelier, La Trompette, Chiswick, London
Longuere worked for Basset at Hotel du Vin (at Winchester, then Bristol) between 1999 and 2002. He won the UK Sommelier of the Year in 2000 and became a Master Sommelier in 2005.
• "One of the great things about Gerard is that he is very trusting: when he knows you are good he just lets you get on with your job, but he is always on hand with advice if you want it. When I came from France to the UK about 14 years ago I did so because sommeliers were very full of themselves back home and I didn't like it.
"His modesty about his job is one of the things that all of us who have worked with Gerard have tried to take with us from him. The fact that Gerard was not arrogant, was very hands-on as a sommelier, and was working so successfully outside London helped to get a lot of recognition for sommeliers."
Master sommelier, Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, Restaurant & Spa, Evershot, Dorset
Alsace-born Zwiebel was already a sommelier before joining Hotel du Vin in 1999 to help open the group's Tunbridge Wells site before transferring to Winchester. He was with the group for five years, winning the UK Sommelier of the Year title in 2004. Last year he tied equal second with Basset at the Sommelier World Championship. Like many Basset protégés, he is also a Master Sommelier.
• "My first job in the UK was terrible and I was ready to go back to home. But then somebody suggested I contact Gerard, and after speaking to him I joined Hotel du Vin. He became my mentor and strength. He's always ready to help you but if you work with him, then you have to work very hard!
"One of his strengths is that he knows how to make a complicated thing really easy to understand. He's a great manager and knows exactly the way to bring people on. People want to work for Gerard in the same way that they want to play for the great football teams."
Group beverage manager, Hotel du Vin
Mesnard joined the Hotel du Vin group in 1998 as part of the team launching the Tunbridge Wells hotel after learning his sommelier's trade in France and at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. He became a Master Sommelier with Basset's encouragement after joining the group.
• "Gerard has made the whole business of drinking wine in a restaurant much less intimidating for customers. His attitude is not to try and push a wine on a customer, but rather to upsell through reasonable pricing and by giving customers a good experience so that they will always want to come back. He's so passionate about wine he gets carried away when he's talking about it. Sometimes you'd go in to his office to ask his advice about something and he'd get talking about a wine - in the end you'd go out two hours later having completely forgotten what you went in to discuss in the first place!
General manager, Hotel du Vin, Cambridge
Frucot joined the Hotel du Vin group in 1997, working initially at Winchester alongside Eric Zwiebel before working his way through the ranks to become a general manager at one of its most recent openings.
• "I was just a standard run-of-the-mill waiter when I first joined Hotel du Vin - I did a stint on the bar at Winchester and was moved on the specific request of Robin Hutson because I was so bad! Gerard was very hands-on in those days: he single-handedly trained all the early Winchester sommeliers and was very involved in training us for competition work.
"We'd do blind tasting sessions pretty much every day. He used to sit with me every single day at noon and teach me things such as understanding the dynamics of distillation. If you think about it, the thing that has driven him over the years is his own enthusiasm. He started out as a pot washer and look what he has achieved. I think that's why he gets impatient if people don't put in the hard work sometimes. And he's French - so to be honest there's a bit of temper sometimes if someone lets him down!"
Hotel TerraVina in a nutshell
Uncorking Profits in 2008
This year we are taking you on a journey of wine and spirits discovery. Starting this week, Uncorking Profits is an ongoing educational campaign helping you to build a robust, well-rounded wine and spirit offering that delivers full-bodied financial returns to your business. Wherever you see the Uncorking Profits logo in print or online, you'll find need-to-know opinion and advice from the country's leading sommeliers, specialist wine writers and suppliers on the complicated business of selling alcoholic drinks profitably.
Over the next 12 months, Uncorking Profits will build into an invaluable guide to creating a wine list and pricing structure that's pitched perfectly for your customers. You and your staff will learn about wine storage, handling, decanting and pouring about how to market your wine offering and upsell effectively and about canny food and wine pairing.
Meanwhile, on our website, Caterersearch, we're launching a wine and spirits channel that will draw together all of our wine coverage, past and future, and offer guides to wine types, grape varieties, wine-producing countries, spirits and beers as well as cocktail recipes and food and drink pairing ideas.
For good measure, we'll be complementing our food and recipe content with drinks recommendations in print and online.