An unhealthy marriage: The gap between grape growers and wine consumption

– By Huiqin Ma

A French filmmaker made a documentary about the Sino-French Demonstration Farm just outside of Beijing. He showed how wines were taken to the farmers after the harvest so they and the winery staff could taste them together. The scenes were very warming. However, I cannot help but wonder whether, except for this very special occasion, these grape farmers would have a chance to taste such wine? Even more, I wonder whether or not they liked the taste of these dry red wines?

In China the relationship between the winery and the grape farmers seems somewhat like an unhappy marriage. Each partner needs, but can never fully understand, the other.

Most vineyards belong to individual farmers instead of to wineries, and grapes are provided based on written contracts or oral agreements. Grape growers always prefer higher yields, while wineries always talk about controlling yields for better quality. It is like a game complete with plans, tricks, persuasion and betrayal. However, this game is not fun, but one full of struggle, pain and exhaustion, and seemingly goes on year after year.

For Chinese grape farmers, the distance from their berries to wine is so far. If their grapes were not the raw material of wine, then these farmers would not have any relationship with this alcoholic drink. In their eyes, the wine grape is no different from other crops and simply represents a way to make a living. They may feel even less involved with grapes than other crops such as corn or wheat which are used in their daily lives, especially as farmers are absent in the post-harvest phases involving wine grapes and in the consumption of wine.

Boutique wineries hold the potential to improve this marriage, as they have a closer relationship with the farmers than do large producers. In Grace Vineyard, Chateau Bolongbao and of course the Sino-French Demonstration Farm, grape growers are treated more like equal partners and family members than primary material suppliers. The two sides spend more time together in the vineyards and work hard to communicate with and understand each other, although sometimes they still feel they do not speak the same language.

True, the marriage is not perfect, but having the two partners fruitfully talk to each other is a good first step.

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