Who’s more rational? The Swiss or the Australians?

On his return from a trip to Switzerland, Robert Joseph draws some parallels between attitudes to watches and wine, and corks and screwcaps. 

How was the wine bottle sealed? And what makes the watch tick? Image: Daniel Apodaca on Unsplash
How was the wine bottle sealed? And what makes the watch tick? Image: Daniel Apodaca on Unsplash

For most Australians and New Zealanders, the question isn’t even worth asking: screwcaps are simply the best option for sealing a wine bottle. They’ve been using them for two decades and are convinced that the rest of the world will eventually come round to the wisdom of their choice.

Maybe - when they are freed from their lockdowns - some of these screwcap apostles should take a flight to Switzerland, where I have just spent a few days. The relationship between the Swiss and wine closures is really quite interesting, because the non-aromatic, easily-oxidised Chasselas, one of their most popular wine grapes, was the subject of some of the earliest screwcap tests in the 1960s. And while Australia’s industry had what proved to be a brief fling with the closure in the 1980s, and only rekindled the relationship at around the turn of the century, the Swiss have remained faithful to them for nearly half a century.

Their wine producers appreciated the reliability of the closure against taint and oxidation. Just as their more famous watch manufacturers reluctantly learned to appreciate the values of quartz watch movements versus mechanical ones in the years after the former were invented in Japan. (Coincidentally, at around the same time as the Stelvin screwcap was being developed in France). Mechanical watches lose or gain six to 12 seconds per day and can fail completely, while the comparable figures for quartz are as low as five seconds per year.

Invisible movements

There are, of course, some key differences between watch movements and wine bottle closures. On the one hand, they’re far less visible. There’s no hiding whether a bottle needs to be opened with a corkscrew, but no one knows what makes your watch tick. And, despite their innately less accurate timekeeping and higher cost, mechanical movements don’t have nearly the failure rates of natural corks. On the other hand, they need looking after. Just as collectible bottles sealed with corks have to be stored in environments with ideal temperatures and humidity levels, watch lovers invest in automatic winders to maintain their timepieces.

Nowhere understands these things better than Switzerland, the country where the OECD’s third-highest level of GDP per capita allows its citizens to indulge in luxuries like bottles of wine, clocks and watches more readily than in most other nations. It also has one of the best education systems in the world, one of the best banking systems and a democratic model that requires its citizens to give careful consideration to all sorts of matters on which they have to vote in regular referendums.

So one might assume that, taken as a whole, the Swiss would be reasonably skilled and thoughtful about the ways in which they spend their money.

So how do they like their wine to be sealed and their watch-hands to be powered?

The answer is simple. If the wine is cheap Chasselas - cheap being a relative term in Switzerland, of course - they expect a screwcap. If it has any ambitions to be taken seriously, it will have a natural cork, or maybe a Diam. A producer like Simon Vogel of the Domaine Croix Dupleix in the Vaud is seen as a renegade for daring to put his premium white blend under screwcap - a very recent step. The notion of using the closure for reds is still far too big a leap for him to consider. Yet.

So, corks - top quality corks, admittedly - are found in the necks of premium bottles of local white varieties like Petite Arvine and Amigne that are more aromatic and a little less easily oxidised than Chasselas, but not much. Premium Swiss rosé - like its Provence counterparts - is also generally sealed with a cork.

Mechanical success

The 2020 Deloitte Swiss Watch Industry Study reveals that the same philosophy is applied to timepieces. While there are some super-premium quartz examples, “the majority of high-end Swiss watches are mechanical and have been the primary drivers of growth over the past few years.” Cheap quartz watches, by contrast, are suffering badly against competition from smartwatches made by companies associated with computers and phones. Rather like the fight inexpensive bottles of wine are having with cans, bag-in-box and other alcoholic beverages.

Mister Spock of Star Treck, would quite reasonably accuse the Swiss of behaving irrationally. If they can see that the Chasselas ages brilliantly under screwcap, why don’t they appreciate its usefulness for other wines. And if a $100 Swatch keeps better time than a $10,000 mechanical Vacheron Constantin, why pay the extra?

Spock would be right. And that’s my point. Wine and watch buying aren’t rational. They’re both emotional. Okay, most of us buy one of these far more often than the other, for a lot less money, and own it for a far shorter time. But that doesn’t negate my point. When most people come to make their choice, the heart has more votes than the head. And that’s probably true of our approach to that other Swiss speciality, chocolate.

Those Australian and New Zealand winemakers may be interested to know that the Swiss import rather a lot of wine - twice as much as they make themselves. Little of it under screwcap, from what I could see on my visit to a large supermarket.

Robert Joseph

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