Wine Book Review: Adventures on the China Wine Trail

chinaCynthia Howson & Pierre Ly, Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

I remember my first taste of Chinese wine very well. My university student Brian brought a bottle of 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon back from his study abroad semester in Beijing. It didn’t really taste much like Cabernet, but it was the smell that really got me. “Ashtray, coffee grounds, urinal crust” was the tasting note I found on the internet. Exactly. Quite an experience.

The second taste was not much better. Matt, another student, found a case of Dragon’s Hollow Riesling in a Grocery Outlet store in McMinneville, Oregon. He gave me a couple of bottles that I tried (but failed) to serve at a student tasting. The smell (something rotten?) got in the way of tasting and the wine went down the drain.

I learned two things from these tastings. First, maybe my students were out to kill me! And second, Chinese wine had a long way to go.

And a long way it has come, too, in only a few years. That’s one of the messages of Cynthia Howson’s and Pierre Ly’s fast-paced new book, Adventures on the China Wine Trail. Howson and Ly, partners in life as well as wine research, might have been initially attracted to Chinese wine by its peculiar taste and unexpected existence. But as they have immersed (I nearly said marinated) themselves in the wine, the people, the geography, and the culture they have discovered so much more, which they enthusiastically share with their readers.

Adventures on the China Wine Trail works on many levels. It is in part the record of the authors’ personal journeys and it is interesting to travel with them as they lug their seemingly-bottomless wine suitcase from place to place. The authors have an amazing mastery of the detail of the people and places, food and wine. It’s almost like being there.

In fact, the book works as a travel guide as well wine journey account, providing information of where to go, what to do, where to stay, and so on. But beware: Howson and Ly aren’t your typical tourists, so while they do take us on a walk along part of the Great Wall, this is only because they took part in a wine conference quite close by. They still haven’t seen the famous Terracotta soldiers despite spending time in that region.  They couldn’t pull themselves away from the wineries. Maybe next time, they sigh.

More practical advice appears in the closing chapters. Where should you go to buy or drink excellent Chinese wine if you visit China? They have recommendations for you. And when will you be able to enjoy Chinese wines (good ones, not the drain-cleaner stuff) at home? Sooner than you think, they say.

Some of the wines are already here, including the $300 Ao Yun that Pierre bought at a Total Wine in Washington State. But that is just the iceberg’s tip and if you are reading this in London or Paris you may know that Chinese wines are no longer the shocking discovery that they were just a few years ago.

And how are the wines? They vary in quality, just like wines from any place else. But many of them (more each year) are excellent and even distinctive. I know this both because Howson and Ly tell us about the wines and also because Sue and I have been fortunate to share some of their Chinese finds — including that luxury Ao Yun.

There’s a final layer to the story that I can’t forget. Howson and Ly are both professors and serious scholars. Although the book doesn’t read like an academic treatise, it has a serious purpose. The authors began their study of the Chinese wine industry wondering where it might lead? Could wine possibly be the basis of sustainable rural economic development? Or was it an alcoholic dead end in terms of a greater purpose?

Chinese wine’s journey has been anything but simple or smooth and continues today. It will be a long time, I suspect, before we know for sure how the story will end. But as for economic development, Howson and Ly have overcome their doubts. Wine in China is the real deal, whatever specific shape it takes in the future. All the hard work of the farmers, government officials, teachers and entrepreneurs we meet in the book has succceeded in building a viable industry.

So here’s my tasting note:  Adventures on the China Wine Trail is a fast-paced journey through the world of Chinese wines that will appeal to readers who love wine, China,  travel, or who just looking a good adventure yarn. Highly recommended.

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