Spring open houses and wine courses good starting point
Geneva, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – Warmer weather will soon be upon us, and among the pleasures Spring brings to Switzerland is the start of the wine-tasting season, with individual cellars and villages holding open house days. These are a popular Swiss tradition that allow consumers to sample and compare wines, but alcohol abuse, a growing problem among young people, is starting to make an appearance. “With young people, we’re losing some of the understanding of the larger culture that has always been part of wine-drinking,” says Jean Hutin of Domaine Les Hutins in Dardagny, canton Geneva.
One of the most successful Open Days has been canton Geneva’s, which last year drew more than 20,000 people to 15 villages. The sun shone, wine flowed, shuttle buses were free. The news is not all good, however, with some wine producers and visitors starting to ask if the congenial event is a victim of its own success, for among the visitors who came to learn about the villages’ wines was a group that came simply to get drunk. They can be loud, rude, and, for the cellars, which are almost all small family businesses, costly. Some are teenagers, but the larger number, unfortunately for the international community’s local reputation, appears to be mainly English-speakers.
“They’re hard to manage and they ruin it for the others – and it’s expensive for us. They steal glasses and when we try to explain a little about the wine they cut us off and say ‘just give me a glass of red – I don’t care what it is,’” says one wine producer who asked not to be identified because she points a finger at English speakers as the worst offenders. She’s not so much angry as keen to find a way to help visitors understand that theirs is a small business, the family is proud of its hand-crafted products and they wants to share that pleasure with their guests.
Denis Beausoleil, director of the Geneva cantonal wine office Opage says the Open Day drunks are “only 3-4 percent of the crowd, but unfortunately they’re very visible. A lot of the time they don’t realize they’re visiting someone’s small business, a family home.” The canton, for its part, is studying a publicity campaign for this year’s Open Day, 29 May 2010, that would help visitors get the most out of it by being polite and attentive guests.
Tasting sessions, visits and open days in Switzerland are generally free. Cellars want to sell their products, of course, but these also give small wine producers, of which Switzerland has some 4,000, more than just a chance for people to buy their wine: they wants consumers to understand the cultural context behind their wines, they’re looking for feedback about what people like or don’t like.
Large wine-producing regions in other countries, for example in Australia or California in the US, often charge for wine-tasting, but “that’s not really part of our customs,” says Romain Cellery, head of the Wine School at Changins, the 60-year-old university near Nyon where most people in the Swiss wine industry train or pursue degrees.
The Wine School celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2009. It was set up to extend the university’s expertise by offering courses to professionals and consumers alike, in French. It is offering its first introductory course in English in April (ed. note: registrations close soon). For Cellery, introduction to wine courses are essential if consumers are going to learn to do more than just drink alcohol when they pick up their wineglasses. “It’s really about understanding the pleasure of wine – the smell, how it tastes, what’s behind it.” Courses such as the one at Changins take the mystery out of winetasting and give winelovers a language and framework that is pretty universally accepted.
The issue of wine education is becoming more important as Swiss wine producers, like their colleagues in France in 2009, are heading for Parliament to fight efforts to ban all alcohol advertising. A group in early March asked Parliament to clarify its position ahead of a major meeting at the WHO (World Health Organization) in Geneva in May which will explore options to fight alcohol abuse. The reply they received 16 March “was reassuring”, according to Le Nouvelliste (Fre), but they remain worried.
Margaret Chan, the director-general of the WHO, has cited successful methods to reduce the amount of smoking as an example that could be used to fight alcohol abuse.
But winemakers argue that a simplistic comparison between tobacco and wine prompts people to draw wrong conclusions: tobacco use is generally considered unhealthy, whereas a distinction between use and abuse of alcohol is important, with numerous studies showing a variety of benefits from sensible consumption of wine. The key, they say, is education, about wine itself, but equally important about wine culture in the broadest sense.
- Geneva offers a short introductory course to wine-tasting and the canton’s wines.
- Changins offers an in-depth approach of four evenings that gives wine lovers a good solid base for tasting wines from around the world.
Watch for the GenevaLunch feature on what to expect at a Changins course: Sunday 27 March