By Jim Boyce
Jeffrey Gao is a BD executive with a global IP networking technology firm, but his passion lies with wine and music (the NBA comes a close third). Born and raised in Beijing, he lived in the United States for 17 years and spent 10 of them in the Bay Area, where he discovered the world of wine. I talked to him about why Bordeaux is so popular in China, how the wine scene here compares to that in San Francisco, his wine recommendations for beginners, and more.
San Francisco, or the Greater Bay Area for that matter, is one of the best places for a wine lover. There are plenty of tasting events and tons of fellow oenophiles who are extremely knowledgeable about wine. Most of what I learned about wine was through tastings that I attended. That is really the only way to discover what you like and what you don’t like.
The pricing and availability of wines also make a big difference. Compared to San Francisco, most retail wines in Beijing or Shanghai cost three to four times more. Not to mention that many of the wines are not even available. I find that in general, the Australian wines in China are slightly more comparable to the U.S. in price, therefore offering better value for the money.
The worst group in terms of both price and selection is U.S. wines, which really baffles me, considering the weakness of the dollar. I find that a decent average everyday drinking wine in the U.S. ($15 to $25 in retail) costs about 400RMB to 500 RMB ($60 to $75). That just takes the fun out of drinking wine in my opinion.
Also, if you are a Burgundy lover in China – which, unfortunately, I am – it’s hard times. There simply isn’t enough demand for the wines mainly because most people don’t understand Burgundy.
You mentioned having about 2,500 bottles in your U.S. wine cellar. What is your focus and, more importantly, do you need my help drinking them?
Ha! If you happen to be in the Bay Area with me, I’d love to open a bottle or two (or three or four) over a good dinner.
I have a very balanced “portfolio.” My collection pretty much covers every region and every type of wine: red, white, sparkling, dessert, and fortified. I have French (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Alsace, Champagne, Loire), Italian (Tuscany, Piedmont, Umbria), American (California, Oregon, Washington), and Australian, German, and Spanish.
The only region that I haven’t had a whole lot of experience with is South Africa. I started my wine tasting career ten years ago and had some encounters with that region’s wines, though not good ones. From what I read, the wines have gotten a whole lot better over the years, and I look forward to tasting some. They just haven’t found their way to my collection yet.
You also mentioned that you find links between appreciating wine and music. How so?
Wine and music are similar in several aspects:
1) The only way to learn about and understand music is to keep listening. Likewise, you can read all about the differences among a Bordeaux, a Burgundy, or a Brunello, but unless you taste them, and taste them, and taste them, all that description is useless.
2) Like music, there is a time and place for every kind of wine. A rich, big, heavy, and complex wine is not suitable for all occasions. It has to be appreciated in the right environment, which includes the food, the surroundings, and above all, the people. The analogy in music is that as much as I love a Mahler symphony, a Wagner opera, or a Bartok string quartet, I wouldn’t play them all day.
3) Lastly, as with music, there is no right answer. Wine appreciation is extremely personal. So there is absolutely no shame if one drinks a “famous” bottle and goes, “ I wonder what the big deal is…”
Why is Bordeaux so popular in China?
This might ruffle some feathers, but I’ll say it anyway: collecting top Bordeaux is extremely easy compared to collecting other types of wines. In fact, with Bordeaux, someone can easily assemble an impressive collection without knowing anything about wine.
A “blue chip” Bordeaux wine is typically produced in a fairly consistent quantity with fairly consistent prices throughout the world. For those “trophy chasers’” rather than true wine lovers, there are also relatively few names to remember: five first growths, a handful of “super seconds”, plus a few from the Right Bank. And if you buy a case of each from the top vintages, you have yourself a cellar of world class wines without knowing a single thing about wine. For the newly rich who want to show off their money, this is perfect!
Ironically, I find Bordeaux is the least agreeable type of wine with Asian food. For styles of Chinese cuisines that tend to be either too spicy, too salty or too sweet, such as those from Sichuan, Hunan, and Shanghai, people should pair with either the bold, spicy reds (Australian Shiraz, Californian Zinfindel, or Cote du Rhone) or off-dry whites (German Riesling, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, or Gewürztraminer from Alsace). Cantonese food is a bit easier to match with wines. Fruity California Pinot would be a good option.
Have you tried any Chinese wines and, if so, what did you think?
My experience with Chinese wines has been extremely limited, and sadly all with very bad results. So far I have not come across one bottle that warrants its price tag, regardless the level.
What five bottles would you recommend to someone in China who is new to wine?
1) An inexpensive Australian Shiraz, which is always fun. The oakiness and spiciness often come through even in basic level wines. That makes it easy for a beginner to pick up. These wines are also very versatile. They are more agreeable with Chinese food because of their boldness and spiciness.
2) A Cote du Rhone, for reasons similar to the Australian Shiraz. They are spicy, beefy, and also great value. Caution: Stay away from 2002, which is a washed-out vintage
3) An inexpensive Spanish red. Caution: Stay away from 2002, which is a washed-out vintage
4) A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. They are bright, racy, and very good value for the money
5) A Beaujolais: these wines are available in China and are worth seeking because of their fruitiness and attractive price.
If you could drink any three wines in the world right now, which ones would you choose?
1) Burgundy, 2) Burgundy, and, 3) Burgundy
What are you drinking at home these days?
Half of my cellar is German Rielsing, which serves as my everyday drinking wine. Living in Shanghai, we eat home-cooked Shanghainese food (which tends to be sweet) more often than anything else, and off-dry Spatleses and Ausleses are a perfect match. I have some vintage Loire Valley Chenin Blancs (from great years such as 1997 and even 1989). Similarly, they are off-dry and easy to pair with Asian food. I also have some heavy hitter reds, but they are for special occasions with special food.
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