Ask a Chinese person, would you drill through a Ming vase to make a lamp? Or add milk and sugar to Da Hong Pao tea?
You are likely to get a Chinese-tortured grimace.
Now ask a French wine buff, how about drinking Chateau Lafite Rothschild with Coca-Cola? You will probably get a similar expression, plus additional outcries of “sacré bleu!” with associated “up in arms” action.
It is a widely circulated anecdote, that some super rich Chinese would drink painfully expensive bottles of Chateau Lafite with a generous pouring of Coca-Cola in the mix. Inevitably, the story arouses a round of unanimous head shaking, gasps of disbelief, side glances of disapproval, and a wave of low frequency sounds of heartbreak.
In conclusion, the Chinese lack wine culture and knowledge of wine.
Well, yes, maybe, and no.
It is true, that the interest in Western grape wine has been a recent phenomenon in Contemporary China, growing at a fervent pace as China becomes wealthier. Knowledge of foreign wines is indeed still in its infancy. It is also true that a large part of the interest in fine wines originates from the prestige, rarity and price tag associated with certain trophy bottles, not necessarily out of discerning knowledge of wine. It became a social phenomenon among the wealthy to drink and gift expensive French vintages to pay respects, sweeten deals, look fashionable, and to flaunt wealth. The hype pushed up the price tags of trophy wines to stratospheric levels. On the back of this trend, investment cases were made for the fast and lucrative returns that fine wines could generate, rivalling other high flying asset classes. A formidable speculative force emerged out of China – the Chinese were buying, the prices were rising, the music was playing. But were the wines bought for the love of wine or money? How many bottles were bought for drinking? And how many people drinking the wine knew to savour the wine’s prestige, rather than merely basking in that prestige? Indeed, as the promise of dizzying monetary returns fades upon sobering, how quickly does the music stop and the speculative Chinese wealth disappear from the wine market?
Mixing Lafite with Cola may well be going on, out of ignorance, disregard or dislike of the taste of foreign wine among some Chinese “New Money”, but all is not lost – it is by no means the prevalent way of drinking Lafite in China! After all, a colourful anecdote is hardly a census. In reality, many winemakers and merchants who frequently visit China note the remarkable ability of the Chinese to learn about their wines, and are greatly encouraged by the sustained interest from a growing population of Chinese wine lovers, in knowing more, tasting more, and experiencing more.
All that said it remains a key agenda for the wine industry to promote greater understanding of wine culture in China, so that the fever for Western fine wines is supported in the long run by consumption, not speculation. This feat must be achieved by the joint efforts of the winemakers, merchants, communicators… but the premise should not be the assumption that China has no wine culture of its own, and that it is a whiteboard to write on. It is important to note that the word “wine” (jiu) in the Chinese language refers to all types of alcoholic beverages, and it would be a fallacy to disregard the existence of Chinese wine culture – most notably of grain-based wines – on the basis of the current state of imported, grape-based wine drinking in China.
Let us reconsider why someone might mix Lafite with Coca-Cola. It is likely that the drinker has not acquired the taste for foreign wine, let alone nuanced notions of what the wine might represent – the nobility of a unique terroir, the story of the vintage, the art and skills of the winemaker to achieve balance between nature and nurture, between sweetness, acidity, tannins… out of ignorance and indifference, it may seem perfectly reasonable to carry out some DIY to “improve” the taste, like mixing a cocktail. However, does this necessarily reflect that the drinker is not familiar with all “wines”, in the Chinese sense of the word? Perhaps not. Is it possible that the same wine drinker would not dream of doctoring a bottle of Reserve Mao Tai – one of the most revered Chinese heritage bai jiu? Possibly yes. It is after all a matter of taste and values based on understanding and customs. For casual Western tea drinkers, how many would pause to think before adding milk and sugar, that fine teas may be picked at the break of dawn by young girls with nimble wrists, “hand cooked” repeatedly by experienced, calloused fingers in hot pans, painstakingly rolled manually to retain the flavour of the “tea terroir”? For the Chinese wine drinker, China has had a long tradition of drinking blended wines: liquors infused with herbs, spices, flowers, even animals… For a culture unfazed by drinking snake wine and bitter gall wine, what is the big deal about adding Coca- Cola to Lafite anyway? Besides, the Chinese are hardly alone in concocting imaginative mixtures, the Europeans have done it too – wine mixed with garlic, coriander, soaking bits of lizard or donkey, were recommended by the Ancient Romans; less controversially, Sangria and mulled wine are popular to this day. And how about the French comedy movie, Le Dîner de Cons, in which it was found that adding vinegar in an attempt to taint a good wine only improved it further. Now if the French were prepared to joke about their wine, what is so shocking to find the Chinese “experimenting” with claret?
Joking aside, it is a great pity to waste something fine on the uninterested, when it could have brought much joy to a discerning drinker, or someone eager to learn. If a wine is made with a great deal of skill and love, intended to be enjoyed in its glorious unadulterated form, it deserves to be treated so, not least to appreciate the people who worked hard to give it life and art. This respect and understanding will only come with greater awareness and genuine interest in the wine. The taste of a wine may be altered by the choice of food, rather than by adding Cola – this knowledge will also come with learning and experimenting.
So how could the greater appreciation and understanding take place effectively? It is my opinion that a two way exchange of culture, to draw on common feelings and finding cultural parallels, would be infinitely more potent in communicating ideas than any unilateral preaching programme.
History has shown us that the 17th century French Jesuit missionaries, who were interested in Chinese culture and sensitive towards local customs, were well received in China, even welcomed to the inner circle of the emperor’s court. In fact, the longest reigning emperor of China – Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722 AD) – took advice from a French missionary to drink a small glass of red wine with meals every day. This Frenchman was Louis Le Comte from Bordeaux, who went down in Chinese history for his contribution towards the longevity of a most revered emperor of China. Yet other foreign missionaries, who disregarded Chinese spirituality as idol worship and paganism, at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, and adopted a stance of treating foreign people as a blank canvas, had far less success in their efforts to spread their teachings – they were eventually banned by imperial edict from the same emperor, Kangxi. Today, China is much more open to foreign influences and her people enthusiastic about foreign cultures. Yet it remains the case that people respond well towards invitations to new ideas which are relatable and relevant to their own circumstances, not to the imposition of abstract concepts. Furthermore, the understanding of, and sensitivity towards, local customs will always provide an edge – a display of reciprocity in learning and interest would not only impress, but earn respect, forge trust and open doors.
In the meantime, let us not forget the exceedingly excellent odds, that those unfortunate bottles of “Chateau Lafite” mixed with Coca-Cola are in fact, unfortunately not all the real deal…
© Janet Z. Wang 2012