gbarrett at AMERICANDIALECT.ORG
Sat Apr 1 03:19:13 UTC 2000
Donald M. Lance <LanceDM at missouri.edu> wrote:
>When I was in Spain recently, several guys poured Coca Cola (maybe 1 coke: 2 wine)
>their glasses of red wine. Not bad. Much tamer than a boilermaker. I didn't
>ask if they had a name for it.
There was a story in the Times recently that mentioned the Chinese mixing their
wines that way. I'm including the whole article rather than an excerpt and a link
because the article is now only available through fee-based services. It's a great read.
March 13, 2000
HEADLINE: Aggressive Little Wines? China's Acquiring a Taste
BYLINE: By CRAIG S. SMITH
DATELINE: SHANGHAI, March 12
Yao Yun pulls the cork on a bottle of red wine in a fashionable restaurant here and
does something that might horrify a Frenchman: he pours himself half a glass and tops
it up with Sprite.
"Wine tastes too bitter, but the more we drink mixed wine, the more we like it,"
says the young graphic designer, pouring a second glass for his friend.
Red wine is a la mode in China's increasingly prosperous cities these days,
particularly at wedding banquets and karaoke bars. It has replaced the Cognac that people
here downed by the tumblerful a few years ago.
But thanks to lax regulation and unscrupulous vintners, much of the wine in China is
of poor quality. Many people mix white wine with Coca-Cola or red wine with Sprite
to make the wine more palatable.
Though Mr. Yao's bottle of wine carries a local label, it might contain cheap table
wine from Spain that has sat for months in a giant plastic shipping bag. Or it might
not hold what people in the West would consider wine at all: there is no law that red
wine be made from grapes, though there is a "recommended standard" that grapes be
used for at least half the content.
Bottlers are supposed to list the ingredients on the label, but there is often
plenty left unsaid. Some wine is made from cheap apple-juice concentrate, with grain
alcohol and color added, viticulturists say. Some is just colored sugar water, with
flavoring and alcohol but no fruit juice at all. Counterfeiting is rife, with only a
printing press needed to turn cooking wine into claret.
That disturbs Western merchants who had hoped to cultivate a billion winebibbers
after Beijing began promoting fruit-based alcoholic beverages as an alternative to
traditional 160-proof Chinese spirits a few years ago. Chinese liquor is made from grain
the government would rather people eat than imbibe.
Helped by reports of the health benefits of moderate wine consumption, the
government's nudge started a stampede for red wine. The Chinese do not ascribe any special
aphrodisiac qualities to wine, as they do to some hard liquor, but as in the West, wine
has a romantic aura. The sudden demand quickly sucked dry China's small vineyards,
mostly vestiges of Western wineries from pre-Communist days. Wine factories even used
up Chinese grape varieties like Cow's Nipple or Dragon's Eye, which are considered too
sweet for dry Western wines.
To slake the sudden thirst, Chinese bottlers started importing cheap European wine,
shipped in 22,000-liter bags that each fill a 20-foot steel freight container.
Fernando Rovira was in charge of international sales at the Bodegas Felix Solis winery in
Spain at the time. The dapper Spaniard says his fax machine began whirring with order
after order from China in 1996. "People wanted four, five containers in the first
order, no sample required," he says now from his mostly empty warehouse just west of
The world's wine business quickly fell under the spell of the potentially vast China
market. Winemakers from Australia to Peru came to scout for customers. Mr. Rovira
moved to Shanghai, established a bottling plant and began pumping wine from truck to
tank as if it were home-heating oil.
Soon, even China's best-known local labels were wrapped around bottles of cheap
Western table wine, though they continued to claim that they were made in China. "China
doesn't have enough grape fields to meet the market demand, so it's hard to believe
that any of the big companies aren't importing from other countries," said Wang
Jiajian, an official at the Alcohol Monopoly Agency in Shanghai.
The number of Chinese winemakers grew from a few dozen to more than 300, bottling
such wines as Grand Dragon and Tonghua, whose label carries the ambiguous English
phrase, "save and preserve five years in oak wood bucket."
But the dipsomania ran out of control: though wine consumption nearly tripled from
1996 to 1997, imports grew sixfold. China was soon swimming in surplus wine.
Twenty-year old French wines appeared on supermarket shelves at $3 or $4 a bottle, cheaper
than even local wines. Some were fake but some were genuine, smuggled in and later
dumped by cash-starved importers.
China tried stemming the flow, first by enforcing oft-underpaid duties that more
than double the cost of imported wine, then by banning French wine imports after
detecting traces of cow's blood in a few bottles. (Blood is sometimes used to clarify wine,
but the practice is outdated and limited to a few small regions of Europe.)
Nonetheless, the Chinese press was soon warning consumers that they could catch mad
cow disease by drinking French wine. China lifted the ban after just two weeks last
year, but the damage was done. "A lot of people are afraid to drink any imported wine,
especially French wine," says Sun Cheng, manager of the Golden Gate, a brightly
lighted Shanghai restaurant that only serves Chinese wines -- including one listed on the
menu as French Champagne Wine, though it comes from northern China.
With the customs service cracking down and the market saturated, importers began
abandoning shipments at the docks. Wine executives estimate that as much as 10,000
metric tons -- the equivalent of about 13 million bottles -- was abandoned last year. A
lot of it is still sitting in government warehouses.
"They've imported so much wine that if they stopped today, there's enough in the
warehouses to last three or four years," said Mr. Rovira, whose profit margins and
market have withered because of competition from cheap wine.
If no one claims the wine after three months, customs agents are free to sell it --
which they do, at happy-hour prices. By that time, the wine has been in plastic
shipping bags for at least four months, including time on the water. A lot of the wine on
the market today sat in shipping bags through the sweltering heat of summer.
That does not matter to most Chinese, who drink wine as they do traditional Chinese
spirits, in a ritualized swallow meant more for show than for sensation. In the
second- floor ballroom of the New Asia Thomson Hotel in Shanghai recently, tables of
flushed young women and crew-cut young men gulped goblets of Imperial Court wine --
produced by a grapefruit farm -- to a chorus of "gan-bei," a toast-cum-challenge that
literally means "dry cup."
But it does concern those people trying to educate China's palate. Sam Featherston,
an executive at the Montrose Food and Wine Company, an American-owned importer and
distributor of fine wines in China, recalls that he was awakened one night by a
bartender at a karaoke club in Beijing who wanted a case of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild at
roughly $170 a bottle wholesale for the cheapest vintage, one of Montrose's most
Mr. Featherston delivered the wine personally by taxi and was invited to spend the
rest of the night with a party of toughs and a dozen hired women, who swilled the wine
mixed with Sprite and watermelon slices.
"People say, "it's just like drinking the local stuff, so why spend so much money,"
Mr. Featherston said, referring to such ill-fated fine wines. But when they drink the
local stuff on its own, he adds, their eyes water and their throats burn and they
decide they do not like wine.
Montrose is nurturing a growing band of oenophiles with its 60,000-bottle cellar --
actually a Mao-era bomb shelter in Beijing. The company holds frequent wine tastings
and caters to a few connoisseurs. A director of the state arms trading company buys
$100 bottles of Sauternes by the case, Mr. Featherston says.
But most of the wine is consumed in places like Shanghai's Famous Grouse karaoke
club, where black-clad young women carry $10 bottles of El Guardamonte from Spain
through the bright yellow halls to dark private rooms. Such nightclubs across Asia were
once the main drain for much of the world's brandy and plenty of whiskey. "No one wants
to drink Cognac anymore; most of our customers want red wine now," said the club's
general manager, Huang Jianmei.
The real losers are people trying to produce quality wines in China. In the 1980's,
Group Pernod Ricard of France began coaxing villages near China's Great Wall to
switch from sweet Chinese grape varieties to chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, which the
company could use to make quality wines. They taught farmers to bury the frail
European plants in the sandy soil during the frigid northern Chinese winters and to dig
them out in spring.
The company now makes about a million bottles a year under the Dragon Seal label,
using strict European standards -- even aging the wine in oak casks imported from
France. But the market is increasingly difficult. "The price is always decreasing," says
its winemaker, Gerome Sabate.
Mr. Rovira of Felix Solis has decided to approach the market another way: he is
selling jugs of sangria.
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