One night in 1995 in Beijing, an American wine importer named Sam Featherston witnessed a horrific scene: a group of Chinese businessmen at a karaoke bar mixing 12 bottles of Château Lafite Rothschild, one of the world’s rarest and most coveted wines, with Sprite, adding watermelon and orange slices. “I am sure a few die-hard French winemakers would have turned in their graves,” Featherston, who declined to partake, later told The New York Times of the experience.
This is a piece of the story of the successful transfer of technology and know-how from Napa valley to Yushan, a small rural town in north-eastern China, not far from Xi’an, the ancient capital of China. The story was published in the California Sunday Magazine earlier this year.
Ma Qingyun, a successful Chinese architect who used to work with the even better known Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, roamed California for weeks, trying to learn more about wine making. For more than a decade, Ma has been making his own wine back in Yushan. Now he wants his wine to be even better. Actually, he wants the best; and so he got really excited when, while visiting Napa Valley, he met Michael Silacci, the famous winemaker of the Opus One Winery. This was in 2009, and Ma managed to hire one of Silacci’s protégés, 39-year-old Victoria Coleman. The rest of the story is a sort of ethnographic, political reportage of winemaking in China. As of today, the Jade Valley resort in Yunshan, owned by Ma and his family, produces about 100,000 bottles of wine of good quality, with a chance to compete with more famous wines of the world one day.
Not every wine story in China is equally good. But since I first lived in China in late ’70s, when there was no wine at all, China has grown into the biggest consumer of red wine, leaving behind traditional wine-loving countries like France, Italy and the U.S. To be more precise, the habit of wine drinking among the larger urban Chinese population has only arrived with turn of the century. I remember that when I was getting ready to move to China as a correspondent in 1998, a big part of our shipping container was filled with cases of wine – in large part for my family, but quite a lot of it was for our foreign friends who were in need of a fresh supply of good wines. Then, just two years later, one wine import company in Beijing mushroomed into many others. Enthusiasm lasted a couple of years, until Chinese companies learned that selling and storing wine is not just any business, but that it requires knowledge and attention. All this obviously happened in the last decade, a time when many Chinese, like Ma Qingyun, have been travelling around world, learning and buying. Many world producers – especially the French – prospered together with this new Chinese fashion. In 2013, French wine exports amounted to $7.7 billion, mostly due to increased export of high quality red wines to China. And home production grew parallel to the increased home consumption. But as we saw in California Sunday Magazine’s story, it takes a lot of time and money to gain access to the well-protected privileges and experiences surrounding the top quality wines – something China is unlikely to obtain, Time Magazine argued two years ago.
As usual, in every fast-growing business, there are those who try shortcuts. Last year, Reuters broke the story that at least half of all Château Lafite sold in China is fake. As Quartz reported, “Counterfeiters typically buy empty bottles of well-known brands and refill and re-cork them. (One method is to combine alcohol with watermelon rinds and grape juice.) Lafites are especially popular for faking because of their price. Some say that there are more cases of 1982 Lafite, which can cost more than $10,000, in China than were ever produced.”
I honestly hope that the people who drank the fakes are those who clearly couldn’t care less about the quality of the wine, like the gentlemen described at the very beginning of this post.