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Bordeaux-Parker embrace has a deadly third party

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Are wealthy Chinese wine buyers “opening [Bordeaux] with their friends, rather than just using them as an investment,” as the Bordeaux Wine Council attested last week, or are “Speculators, not drinkers…likely to be the biggest Chinese buyers of Bordeaux,” as a Decanter survey, also released last week, just found?

The two statements can’t both be true.

I can understand why the Bordeaux Wine Council, a P.R. arm of the Bordeaux wine industry, would want to convince itself, and the world, that the Chinese are actually drinking their Bordeaux, and not using it like poker chips. [Disclosure: this blog has the honor of being on the Council’s blogroll, one of only nine to make the cut.] It doesn’t do Bordeaux’s image any good to be associated with rampant speculation.

The Council also is sensitive to the rather severe hit the Bordeaux market in China suffered earlier this month, when media around the world revealed that the “unprecedented speculation” is now giving rise to “fears of fraud…among the super-rich in China” concerning fake wine, as was reported, for instance, by The Telegraph.

The article reported unbelievably obtuse demand among China’s nouveau-rich for 2009 Bordeaux, and quoted a Hong Kong broker as saying people were “coming in with blank chequebooks saying, ‘Just tell me the number I need to write’.” That kind of blind madness naturally greatly increases “the opportunities for fraud,” the article said.

The proximate cause of the madness was (who else?) Parker’s pronouncement that “2009 may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux.” [Of course, if the '09s are duds, Parker can always say, "Well, I said may...".] If that sounds familiar, it’s because it uncannily resembles what he wrote of the 2005s: “One thing I am sure of after twenty-eight years of tasting Bordeaux wines every March is that 2005 can not be compared to any previous vintage in my experience.”

The Man does know how to turn a phrase! (And if anybody can come up with “greatest vintage ever” statements from Parker for other vintages, you win a free subscription to this blog.)

It’s obviously not in Bordeaux’s or in Parker’s interests for anyone to think the Chinese are just a bunch of fools buying up fake “Lafitte” from unscrupulous con men.

Fine wine must avoid the taint of fraud like an STD. Bordeaux has done a pretty good job keeping its hem out of the mud for centuries, but then, there’s never been a market as unsophisticated, gullible — and rich — as China. Although only about 14 million of its population of 1.3 billion currently buys wine, they do show an alarming naivete, and China’s potential down the road, as it gets richer, is clearly staggering. The Bordelais, with a centuries-old eye to emerging markets (Russia, Britain in the early 1800s, America in the 20th) know it. Mouton Cadet just opened their first wine bar in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where they will pour, not only their plonkish basic Bordeaux (which my great colleague, Wine Enthusiast’s French editor Roger Voss, gives fairly dreadful reviews to), but d’Armailhac, Clerc Milon and, yes, Mouton itself. Never mind that falsely-labeled Mouton Cadet already has made its appearance in China. Can Mouton Rothschild be far behind?

Bordeaux and Parker are so intertwined, it’s almost like they co-brand each other. Parker essentially brought Bordeaux back from the dead with his 1982 declaration of the vintage, and France in turn returned the favor, with former President Jacques Chirac awarding him the Legion of Honor.

The Western world, where both Bordeaux and Parker made their reputations, is one of law, orderly commerce [usually] and a go-for-the-jugular Fourth Estate dedicated to fraud-busting. China is a whole other ballgame. If fake Bordeaux — and fake Rhône and California wines, which Parker also reviews — become a significant problem in China, that could mar everybody’s reputation. And you can bet it’s already happening. “California wineries also face a threat common to many industries in China — copycats,” reported this article from the San Jose Mercury News just two weeks ago. It quoted Wu Jianxin, owner of a Beijing wine club, as saying, “There are a lot of fakes and the government has one eye open and one eye closed…The fake wine industry will employ a lot of people.”

Wineries stand to lose more, in the way of reputation, than does Parker, whose personal integrity is undoubted. Still, the partnership between Parker and the Bordeaux wine trade in China now has a third seat at the table: crooks. How will they both handle it?

  1. Steve, you also know how to turn a phrase: “— and fake Rhône and California wines, which Parker also reviews —” I know what you probably (?) meant to say, but this had me rolling on the floor laughing.

  2. John, that was inadvertent. But I can see why you were laughing!

  3. Rebecca Terner says:

    Nice job, Steven. Come to the Wild East and see for yourself what this market is really like. Went to a wine bar in Shanghai with Maxine and we were treated to $200 a glass “authentic” wine. As storage is really a problem in these hot places…nothing was worth finishing.

    I will say this for the future – when I lived in Hong Kong 12 years ago you could buy absolutely anything fake. Today there are no “fakes” on the regular market you must go to specialized areas to find “fakes.” People perfer the authentic when they can afford it and appreciate a diverse enough market to find quality in their price range. Thankfully the wine world is big enough for all types of spenders to find quality.

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