On balance (an open letter to Elisabeth Pasquier)

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Ellen Wallace

Dear Elisabeth, when last we saw each other, rushing at the end of yet another wine tasting (so many in 17 years!), we promised to have coffee or tea, perhaps a verbena, some morning, “soon, soon”, probably in Sierre and maybe even in the sunshine - and then we each remembered things from our too-busy schedules and “soon, soon” was pushed a little further into the distance. The idea was to put another stitch in a friendship, to mend patches where it had worn thin, to prod again the shiftable boundaries of a professional working relationship. 

A young woman recently mentioned to me how much she admired your drive and ability to get things done for Vinea

I want to tell you this: a young woman recently mentioned to me how much she admired your drive and ability to get things done for Vinea, and keep smiling. I’ve had the same conversation with other young women and men, once ironically in the context of how you had upset someone who nevertheless admired you; you should know how much you taught and inspired them.

They should have heard our conversations about how hard this is to achieve, the balance between being strong and decisive and also listening quietly. Or about the time balance, between a hugely demanding job and helping our children find their way in the world and seeking essential moments of solitude.

Enthusiasm, energy: this is your public face, the one most people have seen most of the time. I’ve seen you described this way lately when people refer to Madame Vinea, a mark of respect for the impact you ensured Vinea has had on the wine world, as if these were simply character traits, with “caring” and “warm” added, especially by younger women. They need examples, but it’s unfair to let them think you were born like this in France and when you left the Carcassonne of your childhood to come to Switzerland you packed these in your bags.

I have to insist: this public persona is the product of a determined effort to be seen this way, to construct a perception that would feed your work and create a positive sheen from which Vinea would benefit, and in the process, Swiss wines.

Remember how we talked about what we learned as young girls who competed in sports? The ability to endure, you in swimming and me in gymnastics – the disappointment when you get it wrong, the thrill when the lonely training hours pay off and something works. Measuring ourselves against others. When we came up short, we had to reassess. A good lesson for life.

A positive front as long as the smiling face is backed by the ability to insist on quality

You’ve said your training at EHL, the hotel school in Lausanne, went a long way towards helping you understand the value of a positive front as long as the smiling face is backed by the ability to insist on quality.  This takes hard work, over and over. We had moments of impatience with each other about it: as a journalist, the hospitality business seems false to me at times, while to you, journalists don’t always seem to judge fairly. 

Elisabeth, you and I have played editorial ping-pong with so many documents over the years – planning, discussing, writing, editing, translating, debating and finetuning – that I hear your voice clearly even now as I put down words about you, and to you. I also hear your sudden bright laughter as we find the right words.

We argued, we sometimes got mad at each other, but we always found a way to get back on track because over the years you have made a point of developing that rare quality, staying focused and moving on with good grace from tough moments. It’s rare because it isn’t easy. So here’s a practical tip from you, treasured by others. One of your staff members just reminded me of a lesson you set in the office, that when times are hard, just sit down and get to work, and things will get easier.

I also want to tell you this:  that when we’ve worried over our children, who matter to us more than our work, we’ve let ourselves share our fragile sides, and that has been so very important because it reminds us just how hard and even scary it is to try to get balance right. Vinea would not be what it is if you hadn’t fretted over Nicolas’s extreme skiing and a young Nathalie’s search for au pair work abroad and Léa’s desire to train in my field of journalism, where the future looks so grim. Our conversations always swing around to how to help them, but not too much, and how to allow them to take risks, because they have to learn to fly. To find the balance.

We shared tears over my similar conversation with Vinum-editor Barbara Meier-Dittus three weeks before she was murdered. You had put us together as judges at the Heroic Wines competition in Italy. Barbara and I then spent a wonderful day visiting Aosta vineyards and she talked about her excitement at being able to spend more time with her teenage daughters, and how hard it was to get this mothering business just right. 

This fragility makes us long to create tight circles around us of people who care about and are supportive of us. It is hard to let go of the lessons learned about self-protection in those early years. We talked at such length eight years ago about the right job title for you in four languages and what they implied, as you worried about how to ensure your work would be recognized and compensated properly in a world with petty political feuds and men who assumed a woman would do a lesser job. You showed that bright smile even when you felt hurt or angry or that people had let you down.

This you achieved: the next generation is freer to focus on their work. They won’t have to fight as hard as you have. 

Success is all in the detail

I also want to tell you that I do notice how you always keep an eye out for every fork and knife in the right place and check that each glass shines; that you make sure that every judge from abroad coming to the Mondial des Pinots or Mondial du Merlot is comfortable and has someone to talk to at every meal; that you are good with the diverse crowd that is part of each competition, so that you tolerate well the prima donnas and you help nervous first-timers and steer together those who are hoping to network. Ouf! Success is all in the detail.

Your one real escape hatch makes so much sense: travels abroad with François to beautiful places that feed discussions about cultural differences and how to read people from elsewhere. I loved the colours in your photos from India. We had such a good laugh together over the motorcycle crowds and meals in Arizona. 

Attempting to achieve balance, all of the time in so many ways and with so many people, is a daunting task to set oneself. Of your efforts, on balance, I must say “Chapeau, Madame”, before I say “adieu”.


About the author

Ellen Wallace, who attended the first Vinea wine fair as a journalist in 1995, is the author of Vineglorious! Switzerland’s Wondrous World of Wines, and a wine blog, Ellen’s Wine World. An international news journalist and editor (including Time Magazine, Business Week) she published a Swiss news site until 2016; she has been writing regularly about wine since 1984. She has worked with Vinea as an editor, writer, translator for 10 years.