The recent passing of one of the wine world’s legends, Gerard Basset, has been on my mind a lot recently. Not because I knew him personally, though I wish that I had had that privilege. It was the remarks that people made about him being a mentor; someone who inspired wine enthusiasts to become scholars, and wine scholars to pursue ever loftier academic goals.
His death also made me re-visit the brutal realities of cancer.
I had such a teacher once. A man that instilled his passion for wine in me long before I could (legally) imbibe. A self-proclaimed ignorant farm boy from Saskatchewan who read every tome on wine grapes, vintages, regions and producers religiously. A man who carefully purchased the best vintage Ports of each of his children’s birth years to drink with them at their weddings.
Except that he only made it to one wedding, at a time when his Port drinking days were long passed.
The Christmas of 2006 started off with a bang. I was finishing up a job in Beaune and preparing to leave for a winemaking stint in South Africa early in the New Year. I had just flown home for the holiday. My father was standing over my open suitcase, watching with child-like glee as I pulled out all the smelly cheeses and pâtés that I had smuggled over. With our bounty on display and the week’s menus in mind, we headed down to the cellar to mull over the wines.
This was how it always went. He adored the ceremony of opening his carefully aged treasures (generally Bordeaux, red Burgundies, and Mosel Rieslings). He would pour a small glass, sniff, taste, and then, when the wine was good, a slow smile would spread across his face. He would say, “not bad, not bad at all” and then pass the glass over to me.
When I first decided to pursue a career in wine, he said to me, “You will have a wonderful time. You won’t make any money, but you’ll have a wonderful time”. On the eve of my initial departure to study wine commerce in Burgundy he pulled out a bottle of 1982 Léoville-Las Cases that I will remember to my dying day.
And then, on Christmas day in 2006, everything changed in an instant. We had just finished gorging ourselves on turkey and fixings, and were happily slumped in our chairs, paper hats askew, when my father suddenly became so ashen, he looked as though he had seen a ghost. The episode passed and he shrugged it off, though I won’t soon forget the nervous look on his face as he sipped his postprandial dram.
It was cancer. More specifically lung cancer that had already metastasized to his brain. The location of the 7 different brain tumors made any curative treatment impossible. I went off to South Africa, blithely ignorant of his fate. He didn’t tell me until my return because he so wanted me to enjoy my experience.
When I next saw him, the shrunken man in front of me with the big, haunted eyes seemed almost a stranger. On my mother’s urging (and bankrolling), my sister and I had arrived with 12 bottles of top Burgundies. I had even found a bottle of 1930s Nuits-St-Georges from an old, long deceased wine producer friend of my parents.
I brought them out with such pride only to be faced with a watery smile. Though he was able to share a few bottles with us, his ailing body soon couldn’t face wine’s acidic bite. His brilliant mind remained to the end though, and he continued his love affair with wine vicariously through me to the end.
Today would have been his 77th birthday. Tonight, I will open the finest treasure my paltry wine cellar has to offer and raise a glass to you, Ronald Cole, and to you, Gerard Basset, two wine lovers taken from their families and all those they inspired, far too soon.