By Jim Boyce
I RECENTLY JOINED a dinner with what I consider a significant part of the “dream team” of the Beijing wine scene. At the table: A dozen Chinese wine makers, academics, journalists, and consultants. And me: the sole outsider both professionally and culturally.
From hairy crab to slippery frog, from plump dumplings to stir-fried vegetables, we ate dozens of dishes. From Viognier to Riesling, from Tannat to Cabernet Sauvignon, we drank more than a dozen bottles of wine. After nearly three hours, we opened a bottle of sparkling wine and—I thought—reached the finish line.
Not so fast.
We then drank a bottle of huangjiu, a yellowish grain liquor, with hearty cheers of “ganbei“ (“bottoms up”) circling the table. We then drank a bottle of baijiu, a clear high-alcohol liquor, and shared more cheers. A handful of survivors then headed off to a bar and drank several pints of home brew.
DESPITE THE “people should drink what they like” mantra I hear from some wine people, I often see a condescending and simplistic approach toward Chinese drinkers. There has been no shortage over the years of commentators willing to smugly portray Chinese as everything from nouveau riche brats mixing Lafite with Sprite to keen newcomers who, with the help of foreign wine experts, might someday learn what is proper (read: adopt The Ways of the West).
The problem with this approach is that it bounces off the Dream Team. These players have made many visits to wine-producing regions worldwide for conferences or study. They speak English, if not French or other languages. They can taste wine and often identify the grape variety, country of origin, and so on.
And some of them are comfortable finishing their meal with strong grain alcohol. What to do with them, given they don’t fit into the Grand Cru and Cola Club or other pigeonholes. In essence, they are the 5000-year-old pink elephant in the room. But they also demonstrate to me the importance of considering culture when talking about wine in China.
MY POINT is not to condemn or praise such drinking, to gape in awe at its scale, or to even say it is typical. As fellow Grape Wall contributor Chantal Chi told me, China is a diverse place and we must consider different regions, since, for example, a liquor such as baijiu is much more likely to be consumed in the north than in the south.
My point is that even with local wine experts, who are savvy and understand Western wine culture, this meal turned out to be so, well, foreign to me. Not uncomfortable, as I have been living in Asia for over a decade, been to many such meals, and found this one especially fun. But in this case, it didn’t fit my experiences at dinners largely populated with foreigners. Instead, it focused on cementing personal bonds though draining glasses and superseded a focus on savoring individual wines. And recognizing such cultural components is one key to developing a strong wine scene in China rather than, say, simply servicing one composed of that slice of locals open to emulating Western ways.
More posts by Jim Boyce
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