Twenty thousand spectators gather in an open-air arena built along the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The colorful display of costumes, floats, dances and music, feels no less festive than Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. More than 7,000 local actors, singers and musicians participate in a two-and-a-half-hour show staged by Daniele Finzi Pasca who is known for his direction at the Sochi and Turin Olympic ceremonies.
This is Fête des Vignerons, a traditional winegrowers’ festival held roughly every 20 years in the lakeside town of Vevey. The festival, which connects people from the villages, countryside and vineyards, is recognized by UNESCO on its list of intangible cultural heritage.
This year, for the first time in the Fête’s 400-year old history, a black African played a leading role. Jerome Aké Beda was one of three professionals tapped to portray doctors on stage as they explained the history of winemaking and argued in their funny banter (in French) how wine should be made while connecting the 21 different acts of the orchestrated performance.
Making History in Wine and Switzerland
Beda was born in Côte d’Ivoire and moved to Switzerland in 1990. He worked as maître d’ at a restaurant and worked his way up to be named Sommelier of the Year by the Swiss Gault & Millau Guide in 2015 and Commander of the Vaudois Wine Order in 2018. Beda is the author of two books, “50 Best Winemakers of Switzerland” and “The 99 Chasselas to Drink Before Dying.” He still works as a sommelier at Auberge de l’Onde, an upscale restaurant located in the heart of Lavaux region, between Lausanne and Vevey, surrounded by terraced vineyards that make up a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I caught up with Beda soon after his seventh performance on a warm sunny afternoon outside the stadium in Vevey. Fête des Vignerons has twelve shows held over three weeks on some mornings and evenings.
“The artistic director and president of Fête des Vignerons came to eat at my restaurant three years ago. They drank a lot of wine and after that, came back and said to me, I’m picturing you on stage! At first, I didn’t take him seriously, but he came back three times. I consulted my friends and they all encouraged me to do it,” Beda says about how he was selected to play a lead role in the 2019 Fête. “An African person has never participated as an actor before, so I agreed to try it,” adds Beda. When I asked him why he thinks they picked him for the role, he said, “When you make your cinema production, you create a costume and then find the right person to fit in it. They probably saw me as one of the three doctors (who in real life, work as a journalist, a teacher, and Beda as a sommelier).”
A Somm Life to be Proud of
Though Beda had no background in acting, as an award-winning sommelier, he considers himself somewhat of an actor. “I present wines on stage and in interviews.” For the Fête, the three actors practiced in hiding to keep their identities from the public until the first day of the performance. “In Switzerland, everyone knows me as the only black sommelier,” he laughs.
Beda’s grew up in a country that does not make wine or even grow grapes. He attended Abidjan’s Hospitality School and worked as a butler at Wafou, a famous restaurant in the Ivorian capital. His mentor got him a job in France, and later Switzerland, where he trained with expert sommeliers. Today, Beda oversees 4,000 bottles of fine wines in his cellar and hosts wine dinners and wine tasting classes.
“What attracted me about wine is that you learn about geology, history, culture and meet all kinds of people,” he says. His secret to learning about the wines is meeting the growers themselves, hearing their stories of how they make the wine and visiting the vineyards.
“Our former president of Côte d’Ivoire once said that anybody can achieve something if they believed in it. That’s my philosophy. When I came to Switzerland, I decided I will be the best sommelier. I accomplished that. Now, I feel I became a part of history again. I am proud.”