Lewis Chester on the world’s most interesting wines and plans for the Golden Vines Awards 2023
As the Golden Vine Awards heads to Paris this October, founder Lewis Chester tells us about the lasting friendship that inspired him to create the Oscars of fine wine
“All the best ideas happen over a long lunch with a great wine,” says Lewis Chester, founder of the Golden Vines Awards. A former investment manager and oenophile, Lewis’ dream of investing in the world’s most interesting and exceptional wines got serious when he first met renowned sommelier and co-founder of renowned Hotel du Vin chain, Gérard Basset OBE. Gérard – who, at the time of his death in 2019, was the only person in the world to hold the combined titles of Master of Wine, Master Sommelier and World’s Best Sommelier – encouraged Lewis to pursue his passion for fine wine.
“Gérard was the first to encourage me to study wine education. He thought that if I wanted to become one of the world’s best fine wine collectors, I really needed to study wine,” he says.
Lewis, already an Oxford University and Harvard Business School graduate, took his friend’s advice seriously; he was soon awarded the Champagne Academy Scholarship by the Wine & Spirits Educational Trust (WSET) and prestigious WSET Hardy’s Vintage Scholarship 2017, and now holds the WSET Wine Diploma. In May 2018, Lewis was made a Chevalier du Tastevin de Bourgogne.
With such shared expertise and passion, the pair founded Liquid Icons, a fine wine research and content production company that allowed them to explore the very best and most diverse produce from the worlds of wine, spirits and hospitality. After Gérard’s death in 2019, Lewis partnered with the sommelier’s widow Nina and son Romané to establish the Gérard Basset Foundation, with the aim of addressing inclusivity and diversity within the industry through education, training and mentorship.
“The world of wine needs to embrace a wider and more diverse group of people to stay relevant,” Lewis explains. “It’s something that Gérard was passionate about, and why we also launched the Gérard Basset Global Fine Wine Report to see the micro and macro trends that are shaping the industry.”
Around the same time – over a long lunch with a great wine – Lewis came up with the idea of a fine wine gala that was modern, fast-paced, celebratory and, crucially, he says, “not boring”. The first Golden Vines Awards gala was held in 2021, hosted at Annabel’s private members’ club on London’s Berkeley Square, and with entertainment by pop superstar Kylie Minogue. Buoyed by his success, the following year Lewis took the show on the road, creating a three-day event in Florence, Italy.
This October, The Golden Vines Awards 2023 will take to the salons of Paris, and the Champagne region, with three days of festivities that include masterclasses from the world’s greatest producers to tasting tours of champagne, food by Alain Ducasse and entertainment all culminating in a sensational gala at the Palais Garnier.
Lewis, what can we expect from this year’s Golden Vines Awards?
The event starts in Paris, Friday 13 October, with a series of masterclasses from some of the greatest winemakers on the planet: Domaine LeFlaive, Domaine Hubert Lamy, Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux and Domaine Jean-Yves Bizot (four absolute stars of Burgundy). We have champagne masterclasses from Dom Pérignon and Champagne Salon, and classes from top wineries in Italy. That evening, we’ll be hosting a party at the Musée des Arts Forains [Paris’s fairground museum], which is a super cool venue, and then on Saturday we’ll host a series of lunches with extraordinary chefs in some of Paris’s top venues.
Saturday evening is a black-tie awards gala, hosted at the Palais Garnier – the Paris Opera House. We’ll have food by Alain Ducasse, extremely special rare wines donated by unbelievable winemakers, auction prizes donated by our sponsors, and surprise entertainment. All of the wines we’re serving are created by our nominees, and the list includes some of the most expensive magnums in the world. Sunday will finish the weekend with a series of events in the Champagne region, with the likes of Charles Heidsieck and Dom Pérignon.
How has the event grown since the first gala at Annabel’s?
That first ceremony was incredible. We had the most amazing wines and brilliant sponsors, Kylie Minogue performing, it was wonderful. After the first event, my mother called me and said: ‘I’m very proud of you… but maybe you should quit now while you’re ahead.’ People who know me will probably tell you they were wise words, but instead I took the complexity of the event to a new level by choosing a different host city every year. Our second year, in Florence, wasn’t just one night, but a series of events over a long weekend, combining wine masterclasses, wonderful lunch events, the charity element and putting the spotlight on our winners. Each year we take the best elements from the events and add even more to the programme, so it will be extraordinary.
What inspired you to launch the Golden Vines Awards?
The idea was developed over a liquid lunch with my business partner Sasha Lushnikov, who had been introduced to me by a school friend as a super-smart young entrepreneur and Clément Robert, master sommelier and head of beverages at the Birley Clubs, including Anabel’s. We were drinking a vertical of Riesling Clos from Trimbach – one of my favourite white wines – and I started pitching this idea of a fine wine event that wasn’t boring, was more modern, combining incredible food, wonderful wine, world class entertainment, cool people and an amazing location. Clément loved it, and introduced us to businessman Richard Caring, who offered to host the first event. I phoned Gérard’s widow, Nina, and explain our crazy idea to put on the Oscars of fine wine, and suggested we use it as a platform to raise money in Gérard’s name.
You established the Gérard Basset Foundation in 2019. Please tell us more?
It was set up to honour the legacy and memory of Gérard and the work he did. The fine wine world, for many cultural and historical reasons, is one of the least diverse and inclusive, so we decided we should use our funding for wine education programmes to enhance diversity and inclusion in the industry. We wanted the foundation to have a lasting and profound impact on the wine industry that Gérard would have been proud to put his name to.
Could you tell us about the scholarship opportunities that you offer?
We provide funding for numerous groups and community partners worldwide and have 35 alumni and scholarship-winners so far, since 2020. As well as supporting education and start-ups, we work with groups and institutions to find the people who really need support. For example, as well as working with institutions in wine regions like California and Bordeaux, we also work with organisations like Okanagan College in Canada to support indigenous students; the Hue Society, which supports black, brown and indigenous representation in the wine industry; and The Pinotage Youth Development Academy helping disadvantaged people in South Africa enter the wine industry. We also support disability programmes such as Wine on Wheels in New York. This year we will have new funding programs in Brazil, India, Angola and Israel, as well as programmes around victims of conflicts. So, we’re really expanding internationally – wherever there’s a problem in the world of wine, spirits and hospitality, we want to be there to help.
Where did your interest in wine begin?
I started building an interest in wine at Oxford University and then, when I went to Harvard Business School, I started a wine, whisky and cigar club called The Churchill Club. We had the distinct pleasure of being the first American club to get permission to go to Cuba – we were funded by the Ministry of Tobacco and had to go in via Montreal, Canada. When I came back to the UK, I was really into Scotch whisky, but my best friend was a big wine collector and he lured me back into wine. I started buying mainly Bordeaux and then, as I always say, all roads lead to Burgundy.
You’re passionate about the stories behind the wines and vineyards that you invest in. What is it that you look for?
Often, great vineyards are steeped in history and stories of triumph over disaster – especially as an agricultural product that’s subject to a single harvest. When you have to fight the weather, natural disasters, as well as historical events, you find a lot of interesting stories. For example, the 2017 Barolo Ester Canale Rosso, by Giovanni Rosso, is a beautiful wine by one of the world’s greatest winemakers, but it’s all the more special when you consider that the vines were planted by the owners – a Jewish family – in 1946, after surviving the Second World War.
Another winemaker I collect is Lorenzo Accomasso, who at 82-years-old is still making incredible Barolos that he sells from his cellar door. If you want to buy his wine, you have to physically go to his home in Piedmont and knock on the door. Lorenzo also has a barter deal with his favourite restaurant in Piedmont, where he swaps lamb for wine. These are the kinds of stories I’m attracted to – they’re all stories about artisans and, often, about real characters within the industry, who deserve to be celebrated.