subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

My advice to the Chinese: don’t classify


I was reading the other day that Ningxia, the Chinese autonomous region (roughly equivalent to a U.S. State) in north-central China, “will introduce the first winery-based classification system in China within the next few months.”

The article explains how there will be “6 classes in this classification.” The director of the governing body [of the] Ningxia Development Bureau for Grape and Flower Industry explained its rationale this way: “In order to ensure quality, we raise the bar for entering the classification.”

Ningxia, in case you don’t know, is China’s largest-producing wine area, with a continental climate. Summer highs run to 63-75 degrees, with moderate rainfall. The foreign wine community is interested. Earlier this year the Portuguese government invested millions in the Ningxia wine industry. French companies that have invested in Ningxia include LVMH and Pernod Ricard, according to Jancis Robinson.

Jancis titled her article “China’s most promising wine province?” (but note that hedging question mark). She recently went to her first Ningxia Wine Festival–only to find that “Riedel got there several days before me.”

And whither Riedel goeth, so goeth sales.

Ningxia’s largest domestic producers are Changyu and Dynasty, who together own 20,000 acres of vineyard land. Meanwhile, the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation as well as the household appliance company Midea have begun investing in Ningxia’s wine industry. That oughta tell you how big the Chinese think this thing is getting.

I haven’t tried any Ningxia wines, but two years ago the Decanter trophy for red wine from the Middle East, Far East and Asia went to a 2009 Bordeaux blend from Ningxia province called Jiabeilan, produced by Chateau Helan Qingxue, which also won a silver for its Classic Chardonnay and a bronze for a Riesling.

But back to the point: does China need a classification system? Here’s China Daily’s argument that it does:

“it is still difficult for many Chinese customers to determine the class of that they are buying. According to knowledge of persons in wine business, this is due to the fact that nation-level wine classification does not yet exist,though some wine practitioners do follow their systems they developed on their own. It is obvious not convenient for general wine consumers.”

Given the notorious insecurity Chinese consumers experience about buying wine (unless it’s a world famous cult brand, which not even most upper-middle class Chinese can afford), it’s no wonder that local authorities will try to convey a golden halo on their wines, in the form of such classifications. There is, though, an arriviste mentality here: China is so anxious to be accepted on equal terms with the West that they’re importing our customs and traditions even before they have had time to develop organically.

China might take pause and understand the limits and dangers of classifying wineries. In France, it’s led to a rigid, price-based sclerosis that hasn’t really served the consumer. The Chinese might also look at California’s aborted attempts at classification. There was Roy Andries de Groot’s wackily ambitious 1982 effort, “The Wines of California.” The most notorious was Jim Laube’s 1989 attempt, “California’s Greatest Cabernets,” in which he created five “Growths,” like in Bordeaux. Jim’s intentions were honorable, but he proved, albeit inadvertently, that it cannot and should not be done.

And can you imagine the squeals of protest when some Chinese wineries are left off the classification list altogether, or earn a rank they feel is dishonorable? The Chinese no longer are a people to sit by mutely while “the authorities” make decisions from the top down. They want to have a say in things. For all these reasons, and more, I’d advise the Ningxia Development Bureau for Grape and Flower Industry to stay away from this sticky wicket. Let the market create the classification, not the government.

Monday Meanderings: crop loads, Chinese wine and a student wine club

1 comment

It’s so interesting that the production of wine around the world fell to its lowest level in 37 years in 2012, due to dismal crops in France, Spain and Argentina. Contrast that with the all-time high, record grape crush last year in California, and it looks like good news for Golden State vintners who export their wines. But will it lead to spot shortages here in the U.S.?

* * *

I’ve never tasted a Chinese wine. In fact, I wouldn’t even know where to buy one. I do a fair amount of shopping in Oakland’s Chinatown, but the only wines I see there are from the big California producers. But if I could try a Chinese wine, it would be Chateau Changyu. If it’s good enough for Berry Bros. & Rudd to sell it in London, then it must be pretty decent. The [British] Telegraph reports that the venerable British shop–314 years young–is “the first major British retailer to give tipples from [China] a permanent place on its shelves.”

I don’t know if Chateau Changyu is the same as the “Chateau Changyu-Castel” that Susan Kostrzewa, now Wine Enthusiast’s Executive Editor, reviewed back in 2007. She tasted 3 wines–a Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt–and gave them pretty mediocre scores. Maybe things have improved since then. We may be hearing more about this Chateau Changyu. It’s “the 10th largest winery in the world,” according to the winery’s website, and also is the 79th biggest company in the People’s Republic. If anybody wants to send me some samples, I’ll gladly accept them.

* * *

I’m going to be doing my annual wine tasting and educational seminar at the University of California Haas School of Business in a few weeks. They have a student wine club that has about 65 members. These kids are smart and curious and always ask great questions, which is why I like to go. This year, the club’s president told me the MBA candidates are really curious about how I view my job as a wine critic. Their other speakers this year have all been winemakers; as the president emailed me,

…there were two different schools of thought [among the winemakers], one positive and one negative. Some winery owners/ winemakers felt that critics have undue power. They brought up the “Parker-ization of wine”(and said they disliked it) and one of the wineries said they intentionally refuse to submit their wine to critics.  Another group said that critics play an important role because there is so much wine out there, it helps the public make educated purchases. This led to a discussion on what one should buy and brought up the question: “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?

These are issues of longstanding commentary here at, and I think most of my readers know where I stand. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a new generation mostly in their twenties hasn’t really digested the role and importance of critics, and has real questions about what we do, and about how they should behave with respect to us. Are we dinosaurs in the Age of Twitter, or are we experts worth heeding? I look forward to enlightening them on these points. As for “is it okay to buy bad wine if you like it?”, Wow. Where to begin? That could be the topic of an entire class.

Chinese demand for Napa Valley Cabernet only just beginning


What will happen when the Chinese discover Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?

For the answer, we look to Bordeaux. China is now Bordeaux’s largest export market, a position long held by Britain. As a result, prices for Lafite, Latour and company, already high, have soared, placing those wines effectively beyond the reach of all but the world’s one percenters, including those in China. Chinese people are buying up Bordeaux chateaux, with at least six now so owned. It’s impossible to forecast an end to China’s Boreaux-mania. Indeed, there’s no reason at all why it should stop. It’s just getting started.

The laws of supply and demand being what they are, it’s likely that prices of the top Bordeaux will continue to rise. They’ve been going up for years, anyhow, making this one of the longest sustained periods of steady increases in Bordeaux’s long history, to judge by Eddie Penning Rowsell’s record-keeping in The Wines of Bordeaux.

But even a wealthy Chinese collector must blanch to some of these prices. What happens when top tier Bordeaux starts to be too expensive in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai? People look to second tier Bordeaux. That’s exactly what we see happening: Decanter just reported that, despite some softening in pricing for Lafite and other First Growths on the auction market, prices for “blue chip second wines” are “robust,” a phenomenon that “is almost certainly due to the Chinese market.” The Chinese, it seems, will pay more for a wine like Carruades de Lafite (from Chateau Lafite Rothschild) or Chateau Margaux’s Pavillon Rouge than will an American or European.

So we already see incredibly high pricing pinching the prices of First Growths in China, leading to increased demand for “lesser” but still prestigious Bordeaux. What does it mean for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?

Pretty obvious. After Bordeaux, what’s the most famous region in the world for Bordeaux-style wines? You got it. Chinese interest in Napa Valley is on the rise. A delegation of Chinese wine industry types recently visited the valley, and of course Yao Ming is going to further raise Napa’s visibility in his homeland when he starts selling his own wine there.

You can see where this is heading. it can be only a matter of time before the top ranked Napa Cabernets hit China bigtime. (I suspect the Chinese will have a harder time with Meritage-style wines with proprietary names.) The Napa Valley Vintners, sensing opportunities, last year sent a major league delegation to the PRC; it included Amuse Bouche, Rubicon, Dalla Valle, Wilver Oak, Moone-Tsai and Heitz. Janet Viader, who also was part of the mission, told the Napa Register on her return, “I was very inspired to pursue opening the Chinese market for us.”

Truer words never were spoken.

A Chinese wine wins a major competition. Now what?


I suppose it was just a matter of time before a Chinese wine won an award in a contest that, at least superficially, looks legitimate.

The wine in question was a 2009 Cabernet blend, Jia Bei Lan, and the contest was Decanter’s World Wine Awards, where it won for best Bordeaux wine in its price class (about $15), according to this article in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

There were more than 500 Bordeaux wines in the same competition. One of the judges was none other than Steven Spurrier, who said, “[B]efore this, I’d never tasted a cabernet blend in China I thought was worth paying attention to.”

You would think the Chinese would chauvinistically celebrate this triumph. A Chinese Cabernet beating 500 real Bordeaux! But that’s not exactly what happened. The article quotes the wine’s consulting winemaker, Li Demei, as replying, “No, I don’t think so,” when asked if Chinese wine “will ever be able to compete with Bordeaux.” Li says the climate isn’t suitable. The article offers no explanation of how a wine from a lousy climate could win so prestigious a competition.

(By the way, I can’t imagine a California winemaker ever saying she didn’t think California could compete with Bordeaux! She’d be fired.)

But Li’s remark does provide evidence about the subjectivity of consumer perception. Li (who interned at Chateau Palmer) goes on the say that ”People in China don’t care about local wine. For them, Chateau Lafite is the top, top wine in the world. If we talk about my wine, they say how can you compare your wine with Chateau Lafite?”

Well, you can’t, of course, assuming that people know they’re drinking Lafite. I am assuming that the Decanter judges drank the Jia Bei Lan wine blind, whereas the Chinese who go on and on about how great Lafite is are staring at the label (and showing it off to everybody around them).

Anyway, we know all that. What’s interesting is that, this early in their winemaking experience, the Chinese already are producing a decent Bordeaux-style wine. This makes me wonder what will happen when that vast country starts exporting decent, well-made wines, adding further pressure to the likes of Australia, Chile and California. In their own coverage of the competition, Decanter described Jia Bei Lan as “supple, graceful and ripe but not flashy,” and they praised its “excellent length and four-square tannins,” which makes it sound rather like a 90 point wine. It beat out some St. Emilion Grand Crus as well as California wines. If you search through the competition’s results, you’ll see some of the California entries: generally distributor supermarket wines (Barefoot, Blossom Hill, Clos du Bois, Ravenswood Vintners Blend, Turning Leaf, Mondavi Woodbridge, etc).

Before you get all scoffy, consider that those are the wines that most wine drinkers drink because they’re affordable. So I do wonder what will happen in ten years time if Jia Bei Lan and other Chinese wines start flooding the international markets. They’ll have to design a new label to appeal to non-Chinese, but that won’t be hard. We all know the Chinese have a penchant for manufacturing things better and cheaper than anyone on the planet. There’s no reason why they can’t repeat that pattern with wine.

It’s adapt or die for MWs, and the rest of us

1 comment

I read with the greatest interest this story in Decanter that  the Institute of Masters of Wine “is set to focus on expanding the London-based Institute’s global presence.”

I have been a “mild” critic of M.W.s over the years. I say “mild,” because I have no strong feelings against the IMW, and I count some M.W.s as longtime friends, for whom I have the greatest respect. I’ve merely poked some fun at how the organization as a whole can sometimes come off as a bit stuffy and ivory tower. This often happens when people have important-sounding letters attached to their names, like Ph.D. I’ve even seen people sign off with M.A., as if a master’s degree was particularly hard to get. Hell, even I have one!

So the new IMW chairperson, Lynne Sherriff, says the organization is spreading into China, Japan, India and Russia, in order “to promote the Institute to a wider audience.” And also, because “we’ve found that different cultures enhance the world of wine.”

I’m reading between the lines, but I interpret these moves, and Sherriff’s remarks, as indicating that she, and the IMW as a whole, realize that the group has been getting increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic. In a world marked by the erasure of international borders and the rise of entirely new classes of wine enthusiasts, especially in Asia, the iron grip that the English long had on fine wine is a thing of the past. The world no longer looks to Great Britain to tell it what to drink, and the IMW — British born and based — understands  that, to their credit, and is attempting to deal with it.

I am currently reading A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor, in which he writes (referring to his father, King George V), “He believed in God, in the invincibility of the Royal Navy, and the essential rightness of whatever was British.” This stubborn belief in their rectitude has been a source of Britain’s strength over the centuries, but also has resulted in a sort of insularity that manifests as a disdain for how other people think. Because the British have dominated the world of wine appreciation for so long, that attitude calcified, to the point where we had a group such as the IMW arise which seemed to anoint itself as the sole arbiter of wine knowledge and taste.

Well, of course, those hundreds of millions of Indians, Chinese and Japanese who are falling in love with wine never heard of the IMW and have no idea what an M.W. is. Which is why the IMW is now positioning itself in Asia: not because “different cultures enhance the world of wine” (a silly statement), but because Darwinian realities have forced them to. It’s evolve, or die; and if evolution means finding a future life in Asia, that’s where the IMW will go. It’s the same reason why Robert Parker has been busying himself there, carving out a presence in China, even as his influence in the West wanes.

It will be interesting to see just what the IMW does in Asia. Here in the U.S., they’re invisible to the average consumer. They have clout among a certain class at the corporate, collector and service level, but are still a rather elite peerage. They don’t particularly recruit, as far as I can tell, nor do they need to here; but Asia may be a different story. The IMW earlier this year held their first-ever master class in Hong Kong “for potential students of its education programme.” Their goal seems to be to get young Asian wine aficienados to try and become M.W.s. I’m sure they’ll have no trouble at all with that. When Sotheby’s auction house can set an auction record in Hong Kong, dominated by Romanée-Conti and Lafite, as happened the other day, that’s a sure sign that China is turning into a Happy Hunting Ground for the IMW.

The take home message is that all the old guard (and I count myself among them) has to work harder, and adapt to changing conditions, in order to remain relevant. The rise of Asia teaches us that, as does the rise of the wine blogging generation here in America. The deck is being shuffled, the top cards redefined. May the best writers and educators win.

« Previous Entries Next Entries »

Recent Comments

Recent Posts