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Passing Down The Family Wine Business To Your Daughter

Swiss winemakers Gérald and Patricia Besse have watched their daughter Sarah prepare for the family business since middle school. After a period of doubt, she has now immersed herself in the "art" and hard work required to continue the s

Swiss vineyards (Dirty S)
Swiss vineyards (Dirty S)
Pierre-Emmanuel Buss

RAPPES - Sarah Besse always wanted to pursue a creative profession. And she is well on her way. In September, she will finish her degree in viticulture and oenology at the Engineering school in Changins. "Wine is art," says the young woman standing in the family vault in Rappes, just north of Martigny, Switzerland. "In this profession, you have to have ideas. In order to turn them into reality you have to work with what nature has in store for you. That's what I like doing."

At 24, Patricia and Gérald Besse's daughter knows what she wants. She chose to follow the same path as her parents and has been preparing to take over the family business since middle school. Her brother Jonathan might be able to lend a hand. "He is interested in management, and that could help me," says Sarah. "We are both very attached to our family heritage. My parents started from scratch. They had to work like crazy to get to where they are now. It's important to follow the path that they laid out for us."

Sarah admits that she had her hesitations about following in her parents' footsteps, especially when she realized how much work was involved. "There are always so many telephone calls and people passing through the estate. You have to be available; it's difficult to separate your work from your private life."

In the end, passion got the best of her. She can't explain what exactly made her change her mind. "Working in the vineyards, encountering other winegrowers, tasting good wines…"

The future oenologist has fond memories of tasting just a few drops of a 1967 Château d'Yquem with her parents at the Marie-Thérèse Chappaz vineyard in Fully. "I must have been 11 or 12 years old. They told me, ‘you have to enjoy it." It wasn't the first time that I tasted a late harvest wine. But that was something else. It was very complex, and had a long finish. It stayed with me."

Vary your pleasures

Sarah loves wines with character, like herself. "I don't like them too sweet. My ideal wine needs to be dry and frank."

With a sparkle in her eyes, she recalls the recent tasting of a 1994 Dézaley Médinette from Louis-Philippe Bovard. "A magnificent wine!" From her family vineyards, Sarah prefers the Syrah, the Cornalin, and the Petite Arvine. "You have to vary your pleasures."

But she says she regrets her oenological studies, saying they were "too theoretical." "Fortunately, there were internships. I worked at André Fontannaz, Vétroz, Urs Pircher, Eglisau, Nicolas Zufferey and Sierre. I learned a lot."

Sarah's father is proud fact that Sarah got her internships all by herself, refusing the help of his connections. "It wasn't easy," he recalls. "She applied to a wine estate, and the owner replied that they weren't hiring. Not long after they contacted one of her classmates. She worked like a dog."

Sarah assures us that it isn't bad doing the same thing as your parents. "I'm lucky to have the same passion as them," she says. As for her future, she says "nothing is definitive yet. First of all I am going to finish my degree and gain some experience elsewhere, and also improve my German. I'll return to the family business in two or three years. Then there will be a transition period. My parents still have a lot to teach me."

The question of whether or not she already has certain changes in mind seems to amuse her. "Today it works fine. You'll never be able to change everything, let's be realistic. But I already have some ideas. Often, even my dad has already thought of them. He is always one step ahead, and that gives me confidence for the future. I know that if I need help, my parents will always be there for me."

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

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But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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