In winter on touring skis. In summer on the bike. Whether uphill or downhill. Nature lover and whisky enthusiast Christian Heis lives his life to the full. Without compromises! How a brain tumour diagnosis changed him, the meaning behind his life motto «Give your soul mountains», what home means to him and why sommelier is more than just a job title for him - these are precisely the questions Christian Heis answers.
The story behind the «long story»
Ask certified sommelier Christian Heis how he came to his passion for exclusive drinks from all over the world, and he smiles and says: «It's a long story.» A story marked by low points and high points.
After compulsory schooling, he completed an apprenticeship in a Samnaun sports shop as a sports goods salesman. Later he worked in various industries, sold watches and jewellery or worked in construction for a change. One day he was asked by his boss at the time if he would be interested in joining Astro. The owner was looking for someone to run the business as operations manager. There he was - in his mid-twenties and somewhat at a loss as to what to expect. For years, the Astro had been selling spirits, tobacco, perfume - in other words, the classic duty-free assortment. For Christian, however, it was important not just to fill racks. As a very inquisitive person, he was interested in what he was selling. He wanted to know why a drink tastes the way it does. «I then fell in love with the subject of whisky via grappa, rum and cognac». He then expanded the whisky range with the help of the boss. Since taking over the Astro, Christian has been striving day after day to take his guests into the world of fine drinks. His vocation challenges him professionally as well as privately, which is why Christian appreciates spending time in nature. He is often out in nature with his partner or friends, whether for a sporting challenge or for recreation.
«Give your soul mountains»
Christian has always been close to nature and did a lot of sports at a young age. Rafting, biking, climbing - being outdoors was part of everyday life for the Heis family. The need to escape into nature was probably in Christian's cradle. «I can't be quiet for long, otherwise I get uncomfortable. There always has to be something going on». He loves travelling to Canada, Asia or Europe and enjoys his time in Samnaun just as much. It is a privilege for him to have grown up in Samnaun. The mountains are right on his doorstep. In addition, the Silvretta Arena Samnaun/Ischgl offers a wide range of activities in every season. In winter with skiing and in summer with great and varied trails with the mountain bike. He has been campaigning for more bike trails in Samnaun for several years together with other Samnauners. They want to increase the offer, realise new projects, better develop existing trails and thus make Samnaun more attractive for guests in summer too and bring young people here.
«Samnaun remains Samnaun - forever. I grew up here and want to grow old here. For me, home is not a place, but a feeling. A feeling of security, memories and well-being. And I also have this feeling here in Samnaun: the mountains, nature, in childhood with grandpa on the hunt, with parents on the skis.» The mountains are so important to him that he even has this tattooed under his skin: «Give your soul mountains». That is his motto in life. However, this has not only to do with his hobbies, but more with his moving life story, which has shaped him over the last six years and gives the motto a profound meaning.
Bad news already at a young age
«I had cancer six years ago,» Christian told us. He leads a healthy life: Exercising five times a week, almost no alcohol, never smoked, balanced and healthy diet. The shock was all the greater when he suddenly collapsed at work while clearing a table. The diagnosis: brain tumour.
The cancer threw him completely off course and turned his life around 180 degrees. Just a month before, he had taken part in the Engadine Bike Marathon. Christian felt no signs. Suddenly, after a ten-hour open skull surgery, he was lying in his hospital bed completely powerless. It was October 2014 when he received the diagnosis. A tough year with dozens of chemo therapies followed. It is a strange feeling to no longer be able to do anything yourself. He spent several hundred hours by car with helpful colleagues and friends to drive from Samnaun to Chur for the radiation treatments. In precisely this difficult time, friends and family were all the more important. You realise who really stands by you.
You learn for yourself and realise what is essential for life. You appreciate being healthy again. And yet he always tells himself: «Have a good wine, a delicious meal. Enjoy life and don't deny yourself!» He is all the more grateful now for his present wealth. He is glad that he experienced and lived through this fate in his younger years. He hopes to have many more years ahead of him with the knowledge he has gained. «Maybe that's what distinguishes me from others, that economic success is not the only important thing for me.»
After eight months of illness, Christian was mentally as well as physically battered. He had 25 kg more on his ribs because of the chemo therapies and was left with nothing. But just one month later, the then boss of Astro Whisky & More approached him and said, «When you are healthy again and feel ready, you can take over the business.» At that time it was a great motivation and honour for him. He then restructured his entire life. He wanted to do something with his life.
The path to becoming a certified sommelier
He wanted a self-affirmation of what he could achieve. He had long had a passion for whisky and exotic drinks from all over the world, but since his past life story, he made it his vocation and began training to become a sommelier. But rather, sommelier is a way of life for Christian. It is not simply hours of work. It is important to the certified sommelier that each of his guests turns around again and thinks: «It was nice». No matter if he was just there for a coffee or bought a more expensive wine.
Christian is on the road a lot, visiting winemakers, attending wine fairs or blind tastings. In the process, he always discovers exciting drinks that he takes back to Samnaun with him. He relies on good advice and wants to pass on his knowledge to the guests so that they realise what kind of product they are taking home. The nature lover wants to stand out with his assortment and professional advice. One should not save in the wrong place, but go home with the right drop. Rather, he wants to sell emotion and the experience behind it. As a qualified sommelier, Christian Heis does not specialise in a particular drink. Rather, a qualified sommelier knows about the production methods of the drinks, the compositions of the grape varieties, the soils, quasi the «living conditions» of the plant; for example, whether the plant is located near the sea and what effects these parameters have on the drink. Guests can train their palate at tastings, classically with whisky or wine, but also with gin, rum and fine spirits.
Christian is the third sake sommelier in Switzerland. Sake is a Japanese brewed drink similar to wine. It is true that sake is not yet very well known in Switzerland. But for Christian, sake is a highly interesting drink.
The search for the most suitable drink
Food pairing is another of Christian's great passions. He likes the challenge of serving the right drink with different dishes, with the aim of positively surprising the guests. «Come as a guest and leave as a friend» is both a guiding principle and a motto for Christian. Guests can experience this in his shop. He has already taken part in the Samnaun Gipfelgenuss.
This will also take place this year. Chefs from Samnaun restaurants and speciality producers present their delicacies. In the middle of the Samnaun mountain world on the Alp Trider Sattel, guests can look over the chefs' shoulders as they work and taste and enjoy the specialities.
Text/Photos: Cyrill Suter