La Fête des Vignerons – the Swiss Winegrowers’ Festival

Picture the famous marketplace in the heart of the old town of Vevey, right beside Lake Geneva. Normally the scene of a colourful Saturday market with vegetable and cheese producers and customers sporting shopping baskets, it is transformed just now into a giant stage with seating stacked high on four sides for the famous Fête des Vignerons, a spectacular, wine-themed, musical, theatrical extravaganza that has been staged here at approximately twenty-year intervals since 1797.

We were lucky enough to go in 1999, the last time it was staged (click here for my description of that year’s show), and our luck – and the weather – held last Friday, when we were invited by Swiss Wine Promotion to attend the 2019 performance (thank you SWP!). The show started on 18th July and goes on until 11th August so if you’re tempted, have a look on the website to see if there any tickets still available ( www.fetedesvignerons.ch).  Remember: it won’t come around again for at least another 20 years.

Master-minded by the Confrérie des Vignerons based in Vevey, this internationally renowned show celebrates the history and cultural identity of winegrowing along the shores of Lake Geneva. It represents the crowning moment for the leading winegrowers of the region, since its chief raison d’être is to reward publicly, during the show, the vine-worker(s) whose labours in the vineyards have been consistently outstanding.  The performance involves a handful of professionals but the cast is principally made up of over 5000 volunteers, who participate in any number of roles: actors, singers, acrobats, dancers, ticket sellers, hosts, general factotums or facilitators (les messagers, who fulfil the same sort of role as the “games-makers” at the London Olympics).

I love the fact that this remains above all a very local, wine-focused affair: all cast members are resident in the area between Bex and Lausanne and must have some relationship with the local wine business: winegrowers and their families, vineyard workers, harvesters or administrative staff, wine merchants, sommeliers or restaurateurs – all may be represented, and their ages range from six to ninety-six years old. Auditions for the various roles started at least two years ago, and rehearsals began last summer.  Since 2016, the Fête has joined the list of traditions or living expressions of culture that form part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage – the first such Swiss event to be recognised in this way.

For a small town like Vevey – or indeed a small country like Switzerland – the Fête des Vignerons is a big deal. The budget for the 2019 show amounted to 100 million Swiss francs. It’s an impressively self-financed event, with around seventy percent of the costs covered by ticket sales, and the rest by sponsorship and merchandising deals. All performances are in the open air and there’s no alternative venue – and no roof, unlike at Wimbledon (the stage is about the size of an Olympic swimming pool, with seating for 20,000). The weather forecast is anxiously consulted in advance of every performance and in case of rain, the show may be postponed to the evening or to another day, depending on the outlook. (Both the night before and the night after we attended, it was cancelled.) To cover themselves in the event of cancellation, the organisers had to take out a special insurance policy with Lloyds of London.

So what is this famous Fête? Depending on the fertile imagination of the artistic director in charge, elements of a concert, musical, ballet and opera come together in a fabulous production, inspired by the work that goes on throughout the year in the vineyards and in the cellar. This time it’s the turn of Ticino-born Daniele Finzi Pasca, stage designer, director, playwright and choreographer whose artistic assignments have included the closing ceremonies of the Turin and Sochi Olympics, and who has worked with the Cirque du Soleil. We are taken through the winegrowers’ year in a series of audacious tableaux, escorted by little Julie and her grandfather, who explain the different tasks carried out during each season. Between the breathtakingly beautiful costumes, dramatic choreography with rows of interleaving, interweaving dancers, and the extraordinary 800-square metre LED stage, it’s pretty mind-blowing.

My favourites were a dreamlike representation of the classic Swiss card game of Jass played in a pause during the harvest, with the dancers clad in sandwich-board-like card costumes; a beautiful fishy scene when the winegrowers go down to the lake to cool off and parade around with giant pike and perch above their heads; and the obligatory appearance of the Cent Suisses in their glorious red and white costumes with a guest appearance by some of the pipers and drummers from Basel Fasnacht. Oh and not forgetting the haunting cowherds’ song Lyoba, sung antiphonally from the four corners of the stadium while a herd of beautifully groomed and well-behaved Swiss cows plods slowly around the edge of the stage, their bells sounding mournfully. Magical, crazy and wholly unforgettable. 

To get a sense of the dazzling nature of this once-a-generation festival of sound and light, see this picture article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2019/jul/19/switzerland-wine-festival-in-pictures

[Parts of this article appear in my book The Landscape of Swiss Wine, published by Bergli Books in May 2019.]

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