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.

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!

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We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

Craft Wine? Craft Beer’s Innovation Edge (and What Wine Can Do About It)

battlePeople in the wine business tend to look at each other and see rivals like in the old Mad Magazine Spy vs Spy comic strip. In the battle for shelf space, consumer attention or critical praise, it usually seems like it is wine versus wine.

But hardly anyone lives by wine alone and these days the biggest competition is often less from other wineries (or wine regions) than from other products like craft beer, craft cider and craft spirits that have captured consumer imaginations. The battle for shelf space is real, but its not the only battle.

Keys to Craft Beer’s Success

Craft beer in particular has enjoyed great success in recent years and many of us see the unexpected fall in demand for wines priced at $8 per bottle and below here in the United States as one consequence of the craft beer boom.

Craft beer has many advantages. The margins can be great, for example, and you are not limited to one vintage per year. You can crank out new batches every week or so and it is possible and even desirable to experiment with seasonal recipes or riffs on classic styles from around the world.

Innovation is hot on the craft beer aisle, with literally dozens of different styles, blends and mixes that are constantly rotating in and out of the market. It is kind of fascinating. Wine comes in a world of assorted grapes and styles, too, but innovation tends to take the form of unusual wine brands or packaging, for example, more than experimental products.

Rocky Wine: Don’t try this at home!

Jamie Goode wrote about the time that Randall Grahm experimented with adding “minerality” to his wine by tossing some rocks to the barrels. There was an interesting effect, Grahm said. The stones added “far more complexity and greater persistence on the palate.” But the health department shut the operation down.

Winemakers are like brew-masters in that both groups are constantly experimenting and trying new things, although not all of them are as extreme as Randall Grahm’s rocky vintage. The brew industry seems to be more open to the commercialization of these products.

Maybe wine can bring more of these experiments to market in small or large lots to add another layer of complexity and interest?  Well, what about the barrels themselves? Barrels come in many types and are used in a variety of ways in wine.There is a history of product and process innovation both with barrels (think Gaia in Piemonte) and without them (the current popularity of unoaked Chardonnay).

Barrels are a source of innovative inspiration in other parts of the beverage market. I have seen oak-aged ales and ciders and I have seen spirits that were aged in sherry barrels, for example. Working with barrels has always been a legitimate if sometimes controversial variation on wine tradition. Maybe we can do more with them?

Jacob’s Creek Experimentscab

Jacob’s Creek, the Australian winery that is part of the Pernod Ricard empire, has released two new wines that explore this notion. They are called Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon and Double Barrel Shiraz. The wines are first aged in traditional oak and then they get a relatively brief second aging in used spirits barrels — Irish whiskey for the Cab and Scotch whisky for the Shiraz.

The idea isn’t to make the wine taste like booze — if you want to taste whiskey (or whisky) the obvious thing to do is to taste whiskey (or whisky) — but as with  oak barrels in general, you use them to see what subtle influences they bring to the finished product.

Sue and I were invited to participate in an experiment with these wines and so we received bottles of the two Double Barrel wines plus samples of each wine before the whiskey barrel treatment. We sampled the wines last week with Jacob’s Creek winemaker Ben Bryant via video link-up.

It was interesting to compare the “before” and “after” wines. The “after” Cab (made from grapes sourced from Coonawarra) was richer on the palate than the “before” wine  — the biggest difference was more texture than flavor. The delicious Barossa Shiraz was more dramatically transformed and our clear favorite of the two (I think the Cab simply needs to age a bit longer and both wines were probably still a bit shaken up from shipping).  I thought I could detect a subtle Scotch whisky influence in the Shiraz, but I suspect that was the power of suggestion. In any case it was an interesting experience.shiraz

“I thought this might be just a gimmick,” Sue remarked when we were finished with the tasting. But she concluded that the whiskey/whisky barrel aging did make the wines more interesting and different without fundamentally altering their identities. Something new — which is just what many (but not all) wine consumers are looking for.

The Next Big Thing?

So are whiskey barrels the next big thing in wine? Should you rush to try to corner the market on used Bourbon barrels just in case? (Too late — Fetzer makes a Bourbon barrel-aged Zinfandel called 1000 Stories.)

No. But these wines are an interesting addition to the menu, don’t you think? I see them as a thoughtful attempt to experiment within the tradition of wine much as the craft beer producers have been doing in their space.

Winemakers have long experimented in the privacy of their cellars and labs. Barrel tasting with a winemaker never fails to uncover something out of the ordinary. It would be interesting to see more of these products reach the market for us to try and to provide wine with an even more dynamic presence.

I guess I am calling for the broader commercialization of what you might call “craft wine.” Fresh ideas, small lots, variations on the traditional themes but with some added flair. Not for everyone, that’s for sure, but the craft beer and spirits boom shows that there are many consumers who are interested in a more dynamic concept and some of them are being drawn away from wine.

Beer has made an effort to learn some of the secrets of wine’s strong appeal. I think those of us on planet wine should return the compliment. Done thoughtfully, innovations like Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel can help wine compete with beer for the palates and pocketbooks of today’s consumers — and do it without undermining the fundamental idea of wine.

Craft Beer Raises the Stakes: PicoBrew

There is even more competition coming from the craft beer world! Earlier on the same day as the Double Barrel tasting I attended a presentation by Bill Mitchell, the CEO of a start-up company called PicoBrew, and angel investor Karl Leaverton.gfc_pico_productimage_1

PicoBrew uses advanced technology to allow home brew-masters to create their own professional-quality craft beers, either using their own recipes or those provided by other users or famous craft breweries. Quality, precision and control are selling points, but so is convenience — the magic happens in a sleek web-enabled counter-top brewing appliance. Wow.

But making distinctive beer is only part of the attraction. PicoBrew uses the web and social media tools to allow home brewers to share their discoveries and their stories. Seems to me that the sort of person who would have a geeky interest in fine wine might fall in love with the advanced DIY possibilities of this product.

Beer has made big strides from the bad old days of the 1970s. Cider has surged and craft spirits are very hot. Wine, as I have written before, needs to up its game to compete in this dynamic market environment, but do it without sacrificing the fundamentals that make wine so special.

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Thanks to Jacobs Creek and Vanessa Dones at the thomas collective for inviting us to participate in this web wine tasting event.

Now in Paperback: Extreme Wine

The paperback edition of my 2013 book Extreme Wine has been released, taking its place with the hardback, e-book and audio-book versions. Now there is really no excuse for not having a copy of Extreme Wine with you wherever you are!

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do it all the time, which is why wine producers give so much attention to their label designs. Extreme Wine‘s paperback design is even more attractive than the hardback — there is something about the way the colors come through on the paperback that makes the package “pop.”

Lighter, less expensive and even more beautiful — Extreme Wine paperback has it all. Talk about shameless self-promotion!

Groot Expectations: South Africa Wine Report

P1070420South African wine is not as well known as it should be (and soon will be) here in the United States, which is both surprising and not. You might think that South Africa would have a higher profile given its long history and large wine production, for example.

Cape winemakers produced about 10 percent less wine than Chile in recent years, about 10 percent more than Germany and about four times (!) the total wine production of New Zealand (according to OIV statistics).

That, my friends, is a lot of wine. Given those figures and how ubiquitous Kiwi, German and Chilean wines are, you might expect to see a South African wine on every shelf or nearly so.

South Africa Surprises

But numbers aren’t everything in this case. South Africa produces a lot of wine and much of it is consumed at home or shipped off to Europe, the traditional export market for more than three hundred years.

The lack of a strong presence in the U.S. market is due to this and to other factors. The South Africans like to say that Americans don’t seem to know very much about geography and I think this is true although not exclusively a Yankee trait.

Some Americans are surprised to learn that South Africa is a country and not a region, for example, but even my friends who follow soccer and therefore know that South Africa is the country that hosted the 2010 World Cup are often surprised to learn about South African wine.

The Invisible Wine

Ignorance is therefore one reason why South African wines are not better known but there are others. South Africa reentered the global wine market in the 1990s, which in retrospect was a critical moment for the world of wine. Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina all had “coming out” parties within the span of a few years. It wasn’t always easy to get noticed with so much new wine on offer.

Easy to get lost or forgotten — ask Bulgaria, which had previously had an important presence in UK supermarkets! South African wines were among the replacements in the UK, but had less success in the US market, which is structurally difficult to penetrate and hotly contested by both domestic and international firms. Add to that logistics issues and some early problems with consistent quality and you can begin to see why South Africa got off to a slow start.

But times have changed and Sue and I wanted to see how South Africa was changing, so we flew to Cape Town where I gave the keynote speed at the NedBank VinPro Information Day program, a meeting of more than 500 wine industry leaders, and tried to learn as much as we could in a short (three week) period of time.

Intense and Extreme

It was quite an intense (and extreme) experience as we visited 30 wineries, talking with owners, winemakers and export and marketing executives. I will paste the list of wineries at the end of this post to give you some idea of who we met and where we went. This was Sue’s first visit; I was here in 2012 to open the Nederburg Auction (click here to read about that visit and to see all the columns about South Africa).

A lot has changed in just a short period of time and I will be writing about what I learned in the next few Wine Economist columns. Perhaps the biggest change I found was in a clearer sense of direction.

When I visited two years ago many winemakers knew that they needed to explore new paths (entering or reentering the US market was the most common topic of conversation but perhaps that’s because of my American roots), but when and how were usually questions without answers. They had some idea of what had not worked in the past, but no clear sense of what to do differently this time.

Great Expectations

Fast forward to our many conversations this year and the change is dramatic. Many perhaps most know what they want to achieve and they have developed clear strategies to get them there. The plans are not all the same (nor should they be) and they probably won’t all succeed (that’s the wine business for you), but there is a certain confidence as they put their best feet forward. We were impressed!

Next week I will tell you more about our reasons for optimism about South African wine. And then, since I am an economist, some necessarily dismal science perspectives since wine is such a difficult game and dark clouds and silver linings are difficult to separate.

Finally, we want to tell you about a few of the extreme wine people we met on this trip. Wine is a people business as most of you already know and it is the people of South African wine who are the greatest reason to be optimistic about its future.

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The image at the top of the page is a painting of four seasons of wine at Klein Constantia Estate.

Here is a list of most (but not quite all) of the wineries and winemakers we visited on this trip. Special thanks and deep appreciation to everyone who took time to meet with us!

Groot Constantia

Klein Constantia Estate

Cape Point Vineyards

Lanzerac Wine Estate

Glen Carlou

Paul Cluver Estate

Spioenokop Wines

Iona Vineyards

Joubert-Tradauw

 De Wetshof Estate

Excelsior Estate

Springfield Estate

Van Loveren

Durbanville Hills

DeGrendel Wines

Diemersdal Estate

Fairview Winery

De Toren Private Cellar

Jordan Winery (Jardin in the U.S.)

De Trafford Wines

Warwick Estate and Vilafonte

Waterford Estate

Backsberg Wine Esate

Stark-Condé Wines & MAN Vintners

Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons

Anthonij Rupert Wines

La Motte

Kanonkop Wine Estate

Pawn Star Wine


It’s been a busy week so far. My new book Extreme Wine has just been released. Sue and I traveled to Portland, Oregon for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show where I autographed 75 copies of Extreme Wine in 75 minutes before we ran out of books.

And now Wine-Searcher.com has published my latest column on fine wine investment. Click here to read the article, which is called “Pawn Shop Solutions for Wine Investors.”

My column has an unexpected “hook:” a 2010 episode of the U.S. television show “Pawn Stars” that featured a bottle of 1921 Dom Perignon. You’ll have to read the article to get the whole story, but basically I use this example as a way to talk about how investing in wine is different, in terms of financial economics, from other types of investments. It’s an unlikely approach, but I think it works.

We so often hear about the benefits of wine investments or the problems with it in only a very general way. I’m interested in doing more serious comparative analysis, while keeping the mood light. If you’ve seen the show “Pawn Stars” you know that you can actually learn a lot of history through its often funny “reality TV” stories. My column also comments and reports on some recent trends in wine investment.

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Hope you’ll check out my column. Here’s a photo from the Portland book event. Great to see all of independent booksellers (God bless them!), publishers, authors and volunteers (bless them, too) in Portland.

P1060854

Twenty Dollar Bill Wines

My new book Extreme Wine is now officially available and Wine-Searcher.com has just published an excerpt, so you can get a sense of the book’s style and content, both of which will be familiar to regular Wine Economist readers.

The editors at Wine-Searcher picked part of Chapter 4, which is titled “The Invisible Wine” and deals with wines that are for various reasons so scarce (or in some cases so ubiquitous) that they are nearly invisible. I probe a number of extremes in this chapter, but the editors asked to reprint the section on “Twenty Dollar Bill Wines.”  Here’s how the piece begins …

Twenty-dollar-bill wines don’t really cost twenty dollars, so you can put your wallet away. The name comes from a joke that is popular among economists and therefore essentially unknown to the rest of the world. The joke goes like this.

A non-economist walks into a bar and says excitedly to the bartender (who is an economist). ‘Wow, this is my lucky day! I just found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk in front of your bar!’ The bartender takes a long look at the fellow, who is waving the bill in the air. ‘No, you didn’t,’ he says. ‘Yes, I did!’ replies the customer. ‘See, it’s right here!’ ‘Can’t be—you’re wrong,’ the economist-bartender coolly replies. ‘You’re ignoring rational economic theory. If there had been a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, someone would have already picked it up. So it is logically impossible that you could have found one.’

‘But look—here it is!’ the customer exclaims. ‘Look, buddy,’ the bartender says, turning away, ‘What do you think I’m going to believe—your bill or my theory?’

The joke of course (sorry, but economists always explain jokes, even the obvious ones) is that economists tend to believe their theories even when they can clearly see refuting evidence with their own eyes. You would think that this makes economists different from regular folks, but in the case of rare wines, we are all pretty much the same.

There are many ‘cult’ wines that are famous for being impossible to buy. They are so scarce, the story goes, that they are all invisibly absorbed by the lucky few folks who years ago gained access to the wine-club distribution list. No one else ever gets a shot. They are as rare as rare can be. I call these the twenty-dollar-bill wines because if you saw one (at a wine shop or on a restaurant wine list), you would probably rub your eyes. Impossible! How could that be? Must be a mistake (or maybe a fake!). If they really had that wine for sale, they would already have sold it.

Now the dirty little secret of these wines is that they are sometimes quite reasonably available, but the myth of impossible scarcity is maintained because that’s how myths work and because no one can believe their eyes. …

Click here to go to Wine-Searcher.com to read the rest of the selection.

By the way, if you still think of Wine-Searcher only as a website that provides information on particular wines, their ratings, prices and availability (see this search for Opus One, for example), then you need to think again because the editors have created a really exciting website with news, features and a wide range of other wine enthusiast information.

There’s more to Wine-Searcher than the searcher part, so you should check it out. (And, yes, they do also publish my column on wine investment, so I have filed this post under “Shameless Self-Promotion.)

Thanks to Wine-Searcher for publishing the Twenty Dollar Bill wine excerpt. Enjoy!