A representative from my alma mater, the International School of Geneva, stumbled upon this blog one day—put two and two together, realized I am an alum—and asked me to do a short piece on my experience at the school and how it influenced my career. This is what I wrote.
Where in the World is Switzerland?
While enjoying my other vice, a cup of tea, it occurred to me that most of what I read about wine lately tells the same story. It starts with an historic wine culture that for all its incompetent or indifferent leadership lost its way and never benefited from the wine boom of the last 60 years. Ravaged by repressive and/or mismanaged governments in a quest for foreign currency, the quaint and provincial were abandoned for the cheap and easy: state-controlled wine, and lots of it, for a growing world market. The destructive policies, the story goes on, mandated investment in inferior, high-yielding clones and a pseudo-modernization tailored to industrial production. In the end the only market gained was a captive domestic one and, by sheer good luck, their trod upon neighbors who couldn’t afford artisan wine anyway. Every once in a while a British “connoisseur” would extol the virtues of Bulgarian “Bull’s Blood” but such commentary only served to feed the forces of propaganda.
Flash forward to today—the modern age of wine enlightenment and the rise of the sommelier culture. This phenomenon, led by a restless band of millennials, is a refutation of the monotonous wine of the previous generation. To these strident youths the overly oaked and distinctly sweet chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons of the past, the top point-getters, just don’t cut it anymore. They liken Robert Parker’s palate to that of a payola-influenced agricultural commissioner’s in 1960’s Hungary. Their search for authenticity and a sense of place has them traveling the globe in order to gain a leg up on their peers in the tedious competition of “look-what-I-found.”
Not content with the Americas and Western Europe these “globalized” newbies are now ransacking the ancient vineyards of Georgia (The Republic of), Turkey, the Crimea and the Middle East, to name a few places; preferring the native (unpronounceable) varieties (harzveletsu), the ancient techniques (qvervi wine anyone?) and the minimal intervention practices that are the stock in trade of these newly fashionable survivors. In other words, the exhumed dinosaurs of antiquity are now the darlings of the new world order; offering wine-loving hipsters both vacation “selfie” opportunities and “orange” wine as bait.
This sense of re-discovery is all well and good but to me there remains a single nagging question. One that has never been adequately answered or perhaps even asked—why doesn’t someone discover the wines of Switzerland? It seems the closer one is to the biblical origins of wine the more attractive it is to a sommelier —witness the Israeli winery in the news credited with recreating the wine that Jesus drank. Impressive as that is, for every one hundred references to, or articles on, the formerly woebegone wine-making nations alluded to here, you’re unlikely to find a single reference to Switzerland. Why is that?
Flash back—now for the Ecolint part and the significant role it played in my choice of careers. Back when I was a pup and newly installed at Villa Verey and before my subsequent ascendance to the Grand Bâtiment, I pondered the unanticipated opportunity to drink wine at the legal age of 16. Hubba-Hubba. The headmaster, of course, discouraged alcohol consumption but never mounted much of a campaign to root it out. I was thus left free to hone my tasting skills at the now defunct Auberge de la Poste sampling everything in sight from the searingly astringent Dôles and fendants of the era to the more tender oeil de perdrix from Neuchâtel. I occasionally indulged in the more expensive Dézaleys and pinot noirs at my favorite downtown restaurant (read: affordable), the still thriving Café de Paris near the train station, which offered a carte des vins more appropriate for a man of means. I jotted down some of the better names to remember to order when my father, a prominent restaurateur from San Francisco, visited.
As happened a couple of times a year, he would arrive and first thing ask, “Don’t they feed you here?”—a question compelled by the sight of my usual skin and bones physique (a hefty schedule of basketball games kept me fit)—to which I replied, “If you had to eat that boardinghouse crap you’d look like wet rope too.” After some wrangling about grades and “what are you doing with your life?” questions, he would eventually suggest a couple of dining options for the next couple of nights. I would usually pick and choose based on who had the best wine list.
Happily, it became our custom for me to order the wine—he knew nothing about Swiss wine and was skeptical that I knew anything either—but through discovery, trial and error, and my cheat sheet we were rarely disappointed with my selections. Regular trips to Le Gentilhomme Restaurant (∗∗ Michelin stars) in the Hotel Richemond in Geneva and to the fabulous Kronenhalle (∗∗∗ Michelin stars) in Zürich were my opportunities to indulge in the very best and were a welcome respite from the dreary fare of the boardinghouse (see my contemporary Dalip Daswani’s recent article on boardinghouse fare in a previous alumni newsletter). At these moments I would enlist the services of the sommelier, if only for drama, to argue the fine points of Vaud v. Valais. These were mostly austere, menacing men dressed in tuxedos with chins that rarely dipped below horizontal. Nothing at all like the bearded, laid-back, gerbilian types of today. I sensed even then, at my tender age, a certain disdain on their part at the forced communication with an obnoxious teen, and an American no less. But I loved it and the wines we wrangled over always ended up thrilling me. I call them my Swiss dinosaurs and I remember them to this day.
To be honest, from there my career could have gone anywhere but secretly I knew my path was set. I was hooked and the journey shaped up to be a never ending one with both history to study and history to be made; somewhere in between lay the answer to my question.
More history. Enlightened private investment in wine began after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. One of the first beneficiaries was the Tokaj region of Hungary which has since brought attention to neighboring regions like Somló and Pannonhalma. Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia with distinct identities have followed. Turkey and Armenia are now on the upswing while Georgia, with its “natural” wine bona fides, is already a shining star. The Ukraine and its appendage, the Crimea, are bubbling with change and hopefully not stifled by war. Greece is now mainstream and England is emerging and almost too cocky with its fizz. I’m reading more about Canada and have witnessed impressive wine lists devoted to the wines of Mexico. Mexico! And don’t get me started on China.
My point is that we used to think of wine as a static monolith. It is anything but. The old status quo required us to collect and drink the same wines year after year thereby giving them commodity status and auction value. We’ve made some wine investment grade while leaving the rest to populate the dusty shelves of retailers in a never-ending wall of sameness. But the New World Order is no longer about trophies and commodification but about shared experiences, the celebration of honest labor and the discovery that what’s in our glass reflects a season’s worth of sun and rain without need for the meddling ego of man. Pure, clean and naturally made wine. Perhaps this is tilting at windmills but some of us like to believe we are in control of our destiny and our choice of wine can be a political act.
The Swiss are now in a position to enter this market after laboring ingloriously and anonymously for decades. Since 1992 production in Switzerland is way down but quality is world class. Domestic per capita consumption is falling while cheaper imports soar. This drop in per capita consumption is somewhat offset by significant population gains. The Swiss still drink 98% of what is produced domestically but that number is projected to decline. Swiss millennials now have access to, and an appreciation for, the imported wines that their parents and grandparents taxed into non-existence. The franc has gained value versus the Euro thus making Swiss wine noncompetitive at the low end. It appears increasingly certain that Swiss labels will need to court the international market and the smart ones are already at work.
Let’s face it Switzerland wasn’t much different than the Eastern Bloc countries in the decades post World War II. Most governments, seeking GDP gains, supported quantity over quality. Of course, there are always outliers, even in Switzerland, who never wavered from the craft of artisanal winemaking and family enterprise. They are the ones at the top of the heap today; the ones with stories to tell and history in their cellars to drink. The “Artisan Dinosaur/Hipster Somm/Ecolint Enthusiast” nexus has now coalesced at a moment of telling opportunity. In today’s world market if you don’t bring your A-game you don’t have much of a chance. Maybe the better question to ask is: When the hipsters come, will Switzerland be ready?