Many a sommelier will tell you that to work under Gerard Basset is to get the best tutorage in the country, but Laura Rhys joined Hotel du Vin in Winchester just weeks after he left. It wasn’t until she was invited to join him at the newly opened Hotel Terravina two years later that she managed to win the 2009 Sommelier of the Year competition, a title she had tried to win three times previously but to no avail.
Just weeks after her triumphant competition, and on the eve of English Wine Week, Rhys took a moment to explain to Becky Paskin why Basset turned out to be one of the most influential people in her career.
“You need to find someone excellent to train under and push yourself,” she said. “My university course wasn’t anywhere near as beneficial as the experience I gained from learning on the job.”
Rhys’s passion for sommeliery ignited during her time at UWIC University in Cardiff, where she studied for a degree in International Hospitality Management. But even after supplementing her degree with optional intermediate and advanced Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) wine modules, Rhys still felt she had more to learn about the position she longed to be in.
“After I graduated in 2004 I joined Hotel du Vin in Winchester as commis sommelier and trained under Claire Thevenot, and then Yohann Jousselin, but because my courses hadn’t really taught me how to be a sommelier, they had to start from scratch with me.
“They gave me the most amazing on the job training though. They taught me so much more about wine, trained my service skills and showed me how much dedication I needed to be a sommelier. I definitely learned from my time there.”
It was also whilst at Hotel du Vin that Rhys’s competitive spirit began to develop. Whilst training herself for the 2006 Sommelier of the Year competition, Thevenot encouraged Rhys to enter the contest where her wine knowledge, skills and expertise were put to the test. But the title that year deservedly went to Thevenot herself, with Rhys making it through only to the regional finals.
“Although I didn’t do very well that year, the competition had ignited an interest in me, and I was confident I could win it someday. So the next year (2007) I entered again and managed to get into the semi-finals, but not any further. By this point I thought, ‘come on Laura, you’re better than this,’ but the next year I only made it to the semis again.”
Fourth time lucky?
After the 2007 competition, Rhys was given an opportunity that would not only further her career but provide her with the skills and confidence she needed to win the Sommelier of the Year title.
“I’d spoken to Gerard previously about the possibility of what I’d do after I left Hotel du Vin, and we spoke about a few options I could do, like moving to a Michelin-starred restaurant, staying at Hotel du Vin, and moving abroad, when the subject of Terravina came up.”
Basset and his wife Nina were on the verge of opening their new luxury hotel in Southampton, which would serve local, organic food and fine wines. Believing she could learn and grow from working under Basset’s wing, Rhys took the decision to move to Terravina as the hotel’s head sommelier.
“I entered an environment with Gerard where you learn all the time. It’s very easy to learn if you just ask the questions and I think that’s the way it works. He doesn’t just give it to you, you have to be proactive and you need to want to learn. He’s very inspirational and motivational in the way that he teaches and he makes you strive to do better, which is a great quality. I’ve learned so much. It’s my first head sommelier position and while I’ve watched Claire and Yohann do it in the past, its much more beneficial to do it yourself.”
Rhys’s experience working under Gerard paid off almost instantaneously. In 2008 she was crowned the Chaine des Rotisseurs Young Sommelier of the Year and runner up in the International competition, winning a ticket through to the semi-finals of the UK Sommelier of the Year – for the fourth time.
But despite the familiarity of the contest, and the confidence boost that came with winning two competitions in the same year, Rhys was still nervous.
“I was daunted by the people that were in there, like Christopher Delalonde from The Square, all these big people from Michelin London and all these Hotel du Vin guys as well, but on the other hand I thought this is your fourth year Laura, you know what to expect, you know what’s going to happen if you just knuckle down and get it done. So I studied very hard and prepared very hard and I guess it paid off."
No pain, no gain
Despite losing points for running out of Champagne in the dreaded pouring round, Rhys walked away from her fourth shot at the competition with the title, beating her old mentor Jousselin to the top spot.
“It took a few days to believe that I’d won, I think if anyone spoke to me on the night they would have found a gibbering wreck of a woman. The first couple of days afterwards I thought I hadn’t actually done that much, but then I started to realise and thought crikey look what you’ve achieved.
“To be honest I’ve never had very much confidence in myself and that’s just a personal trait and runs throughout my whole life. And now I’m starting to actually believe that I can do this and that’s what the competition has given me.”
As the only female in the final of this year’s competition and the second woman to ever win the title (after Thevenot in 2006), humble Rhys has unwittingly become a role model for female wine students across the country, a description she sees as ‘awfully strange.’
“The industry is dominated by male sommeliers, but I think that’s starting to change now. Women are becoming inspired by the female sommeliers they see, and think they might give it a whirl. But to say that I’m now in a position to influence others sounds strange.”
Rhys says that if she can impart one piece of advise to aspiring sommeliers it would be to find a talented and inspirational mentor, much like Basset or Thevenot, and to learn as much as possible from them. While Basset has been her own guide for almost a year, and despite winning one of the most prestigious competitions a British sommelier can, Rhys feels there is still so much more she can gain from working at Terravina.
“I still have a lot to learn from Gerard, so I think I’ll be staying here for another 18 months at least. And then after that I’m not sure what I’ll do; I may stay on the floor so to speak and move into another head sommelier position at a Michelin-starred restaurant. There are plenty of things I’m thinking about but certainly for the foreseeable future I’m at Terravina with Gerard.”