Paolo Basso – Sommelier Pro And Ambassador Of Choice For Swiss Wines

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Text: Sébastien M. Ladermann Photo: Studiopagi
Gaining international recognition in any discipline takes talent and hard work. To push your own limits you need to develop a truly competitive mentality. Even when you're working as a sommelier.

Some athletes have careers that are as impressively long as they are filled with victories. This is less common in the gourmet professions, we must admit. Yet even before meeting Paolo Basso, it is the countless awards he has gained throughout his professional career that attract your attention. Best Swiss Sommelier in 1997, then an incredible series of second places between 2000 and 2010 – three times both in Europe and in the world – before reaching the Holy Grail: Best Sommelier in Europe in 2010 and, the crowning glory, Best Sommelier in the World in 2013.

It would take a lot less for many people to feel they had arrived in this field, which for a long time was rather fond of overbearing loudmouths. Yet I find him to be a humble, discreet man, just returned from a master class he was running in Hong Kong. With an impeccable three-piece suit, the back of his jacket marked with the little golden bunch of grapes that indicates his membership of the fraternity, narrow-framed glasses and a considerate manner, there is no doubt that this professional is a perfect master of the art of courtesy taught in catering schools, then put into practice in the service of the most prestigious establishments.

And yet there was nothing to say that Paolo Basso would become wed to a career in the world of wine. His grandfather was a carpenter whose cellar – which Paolo was not allowed into as a child, making it even more attractive – was bursting with bottles opened for Sunday lunch. But none of his family members had a profession related to wine. The only sign was a precocious interest in flavours. "I remember eating ice-cream with my friends. They would gulp it down so they could go and play, while I took forever, in their eyes, to savour it," he remembers with a mischievous smile.

Later, when his classmates were willingly choosing to discover the joys of mechanics, he preferred the benches of the catering school of Sondalo in Italy, where he discovered the vast world of wine. A world in the geographical sense for a start, with diverse origins that took him on an intellectual journey. Then came the moment to launch his career, with his first job at Crans Montana. A high-altitude resort chosen for its ski slopes and opportunities for mountain biking – Paolo Basso's two passions, other than wine – where the discovery of the Valais vintages sparked his curiosity. That was where he decided to learn about the specificities of Swiss wines.

A thirst for knowledge revealed by Eric Duret – whom he considers to be his mentor – who then encouraged him to enter competitions. "I had finished my studies quite early, so that was when I rediscovered the joy of plunging into books and broadening my knowledge. That's how, to my great surprise, I reached second place in the Best Sommelier in the World competition in 2000," he says without false modesty. Almost by accident. It was almost too easy. Yet it was followed by repeated attempts to reach first place on the podium, all fruitless.

That's when Paolo Basso realised he needed to change his strategy. To get where he wanted to be, he needed greater flexibility in his schedule and a change of psychological mindset. So he became self-employed, as a consultant, and committed himself to understanding the state of mind he needed for the competition, like a professional athlete. "I'm naturally quite discreet. And the sommeliers who declared loud and clear that they were in it to win it seemed presumptuous to me. Because from a purely statistical point of view, with a high number of participants and draconian selection processes, the chances of winning first place are slim. So I had develop a true competitor's mentality, I had been too timid in my approach until then."

A winning strategy, gaining him the long-coveted prize of Best Sommelier in the World in Tokyo in 2013. That was when the world of wine seemed to discover that in addition to banks, watches, chocolate and the Matterhorn, this small confederation in the centre of Europe could also count on the skill of talented sommeliers. And that Switzerland also had a mosaic of terroirs and grape varieties that were worthy of interest.

In the great global wine concert, however, with its powerful and well-established tenor voices, it takes ambition and the means to make a place for yourself. It's uncertain whether Switzerland has all that it takes; in these circumstances, taking advantage of the aura of an ambassador of choice such is Paolo Basso is an opportunity not to be missed. "In parallel with the consulting activities I do for large international companies, I support SwissWine with its mission to promote and represent Swiss wines. Specifically, that means I participate in events abroad, where we introduce Swiss wines to people who are sometimes completely unaware of what Switzerland has to offer in this field. If the viticulture field got a bit more financial support from the government, Swiss wines would no doubt be much more successful abroad!"

With the presence of vines going back more than 2000 years in our country, and 22 indigenous varieties, Switzerland has plenty of arguments to make its case. "Not to mention a global level of quality, which has made great strides in the last two decades." The wines of some winegrowers, such as Gantenbein in Grisons in particular, are even on first name terms with wines of the highest global standards!" says the sommelier enthusiastically, hoping to use the credibility of his own career and unrivalled Swiss success stories to spread the word beyond the country's borders.