Book Reviews: “Thirsty Dragon” and “A Decent Bottle of Wine in China”

Brief reviews of two new books on wine in China.

Suzanne Mustacich, Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines (Henry Holt, 2015).

Suzanne Mustacich’s new book is rightly being hailed as one of the wine books of the year (the Financial Times named it one of 2015’s best business books). It is a great read and deserves both critical acclaim and your attention.

I have tried to follow the China wine scene closely over the last ten years, but I still found that I learned something new in every chapter. Mustacich deftly connects the dots and supplies depth and detail. The stories she tells are incredibly interesting and relevant. Each chapter reads like a New Yorker magazine investigative reporting piece — that’s meant as high praise.

In broad terms, you might say that Thirsty Dragon is a love story. First China discovers that it loves Bordeaux, then Bordeaux realizes that it desperately needs China whether it loves her or not, then finally China realizes that its lust for Bordeaux might have been a mistake. In the end we have Chinese-owned Bordeaux chateaux and French investments in China and, in a funny way, if is hard to know where one set of influences and dependencies stop and another begins. Bordeaux may never be the same after its China fling and China has changed a lot, too.pogo-we-have-met-800wi

Along the way we are introduced to many fascinating personalities, both the usual big time suspects and smaller players whose stories reveal a great deal.  This is the perfect book if you are interested in China or in Bordeaux or in wine or in how globalization is changing business culture. Highly recommended.

The subtitle suggests a “threat to the world’s best wines” and I struggled just a bit trying to decide what Mustacich meant by this. Is the threat due to fraud and counterfeit, which are analyzed in detail here? Is the threat the collapse of Bordeaux’s en primeur system, which is analyzed in detail. Or is it the of the rapidly growing Chinese wine industry itself, with its peculiar characteristics?

Certainly Bordeaux has reason to feel threatened by changing economic circumstances, but it is not clear who is to blame for that! Sometimes, as Pogo said, we are our own worst enemies.

I was fortunate to moderate a panel discussion of wine in China that featured Suzanne Mustacich and I asked her about the threat. Two threats, she said. The first is from the rampant fraud, which undermines the market for top wines. The second was the greed that drove China’s speculative wine bubble. I agree, that’s a real threat — one of those Pogo problems.

Thirsty Dragon is a must read if you want to understand how China is transforming the world of wine.

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Chris Ruffle, A Decent Bottle of Wine in China (Earnshaw Books, 2015).

Chris Ruffle is a Chinese-speaking Yorkshire native who specializes in finance. So it makes perfect sense that he would decide to plant vineyards in Shandong and build a winery designed on the model of a Scottish castle. His quest to produce A Decent Bottle of Wine in China is a very personal account of his ten-year castle-building, vineyard-planting, wine-making journey.

Ruffle writes that he began this book project intending to write one of those popular romantic ex-pat stories like A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun, but the business side of the winery just wouldn’t be left out. Indeed, much of the book follows the author and his family as they deal with pesky neighbors, inconvenient local officials and inefficient workmen and contractors in a very Year Under the Shandong Sun sort of way.

But the book this really reminds me of is Caro Feely’s excellent Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France. Feely and her family moved from Ireland to France to follow their dream and the winery they restore is nobody’s idea of a castle, but otherwise there many similarities. Both books teach a lot about wine-growing, wine business, the clash of cultures that ex-pats experience, and the power of wine to overcome obstacles.

One big difference is that the Feelys went all in on their project. No day job safety net. Ruffle kept his investment fund job and it is a good thing. Ten years in and with enormous work and investment, his Treaty Port winery is just about breaking even (if, of course, you don’t count the value of his time).

But, and this is the point, he is by his own account finally making that decent bottle of wine in China and not losing too much money in on each sale! A fascinating story, full of great information about China, wine and life.

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These two books could not be more different, but because they are both about wine in China I kept waiting for them to intersect. And they did in at least two places.

Mustacich gives a good account of both Chinese wine investments in France and French projects in China. One of these is a vineyard and winery that DBR Lafite, one of the most famous Bordeaux names, has built-in Shandong. In fact the project is next door to Ruffle’s Treaty Port winery and the first Lafite Chinese vintage was actually made in Ruffle’s cellars.

This would seem to give credibility to Ruffle’s project, and it does, but I feel a little sad for Lafite because Ruffle reports all sorts of mold and fungus problems in the vineyards (not especially good news for nearby Lafite) and, just when it looks like things are getting better, the government decides to build a big highway through both the Treaty Port and Lafite vineyard properties. Yikes!

The award-winning Silver Heights winery is featured in Thirsty Dragon and it makes a cameo appearance in Ruffle’s book. Chris Ruffle and his wife make a trip to visit this highly regarded producer and, at the end, Chris’s wife turns to him and says she’s really glad they went. They are even crazier than you are, she says. Always good to put things in perspective, I guess!

Do you have to be crazy to make a decent bottle of wine (in China or anywhere else)? I will leave that up to you.

3 responses

  1. Mike,

    Will put the books on my Christmas list. I have made many trips to Shangdong (mostly Qingdao and Yantai) over the past 25 years for my fish business. While Shangdong is the fruit basket of China, it is also one of the main seafood re-processing hubs of China. Qingdao has a nice little wine museum. But I have NEVER found a decent bottle of Chinese wine to drink!

    • Thanks, Peter. I didn’t know that about Shangdong — very interesting! I am fortunate to have tasted some very nice Chinese wines due to friends who study the industry there, so I know it good wines exist.
      Thanks again.

  2. I was working in Shandong province and personally visited many sites mentioned in your article. So glad there are more books coming to introduce Chinese wine industry development. There are a great deal of wines in China which I consider to be “decent”, the challenge is that you have to go further inland and leave the comfortable coastal line behind.

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