In memory of Jean-Michel Cazes: The Great China Wine Tour of 1994

“I am Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux. I am presently in Beijing for the Olympics.”

I received an unexpected email, midway through the 2008 Olympics, when I was deep into a routine of watching sports all day and partying all night. As Grape Wall blog was newish and many of my friends pranksters, I wondered if this request to meet was legitimate.

But soon enough, I was meeting Jean-Michel Cazes in the St Regis Hotel, talking with a man crucial to Bordeaux’s marketing power and with such a friendly direct manner.

I took a bottle of Chinese wine. Cazes looked it over carefully and, perusing the back label, saw the name Johnny Chan.

‘I know him,’ he said in surprise.

It turns out their friendship dates three decades. (And their spouses were together in Beijing at that very moment!)

When I heard about Cazes’ death last month, my first thought was to ask Chan to share stories, especially from their China tour in 1994 (see below). But first, a little background.

Enter Hong Kong

In the late 80s, a fortuitous personal connection led Cazes to supply wines for Cathy Pacific‘s first-class passengers, and a few years later he made his first trip to Hong Kong with spouse Thereza. He met key people in the wine scene there, including Johnny Chan, who was then head of Hong Kong Wine Club.

In Cazes’ memoir Bordeaux to the Stars, he says Chan convinced him to do a tour of continental China. Thus, in 1994 they visited Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, where they explored the capital in a black limousine — “On the windscreen, clearly visible from the outside, a sign saying ‘State Guest’.”

The group included Jean-Michel and Thereza Cazes, Pierre and Marie-Christine Montagnac, and Eddy and Britt Kerkhofs.

(Eddy Kerkhofs was the owner of Le Dome in Los Angeles, where singers Elton John and Rod Stewart ranked among the restaurant’s funding sponsors.)

And wearing many hats, as event organizer, tour guide, translator, food expert and more: Johnny Chan.

On the Wall

During that trip, they held the first official tasting of the Commandeers of the Dragon, a group created during a Beijing dinner.

“After loading a few bottles into the limousine, we set off for the Great Wall, determined to do a public tasting,” wrote Cazes in his memoir.

“Once there, dressed as Chinese operetta stars, we offered wine tastings to the tourists walking on the rampart. They all played along and took photos. I think this was the first wine tasting ever organized in this symbolic place.”

(Read a section of the memor’s English translation by Jane Anson here.)

On the Road

Two videos from that tour show a far different China. These blend visits to tourist sites, scenes of everyday life in the markets and streets, official wine tastings, and long leisurely meals where the visitors hone their chopsticks skills, try local cuisines, including some dishes for the first time, and discuss their adventures with a soothing leisureliness.

The videos are titled “Visite exploratoire en Chine en 1994.” Given their importance to China’s history of wine and their revelation of a special time in this country, they deserve far more views than they have received so far.

Tribulations bordelaises en Chine 1994 – Saison 1

Tribulations bordelaises en Chine 1994 – Saison 2

As noted above, Johnny Chan served as the tour guide, tasting coordinator, translator, co-founder of the Commandeers of the Dragon and more when Jean-Michel Cazes and his party toured China in 1994. And, in turn, formed a lifelong bond with the Cazes. Here are a few of his memories from those early days.

Memories of Jean-Michel Cazes

By Johnny Chan

Jean-Michel’s funeral was on Tuesday. I asked our mutual friend Pierre Montagnac, with us on the 1994 China trip, to send love from our family to Thereza. He did and told me there were thousands of people at the funeral.

We were really the pioneers in organizing these kinds of wine events in China at that time and there was no lack of enthusiasm. The logistics were scary, but if there is a will, there is a way.

Jean-Michel was like a magnet because he spoke a language that everyone understood: unpretentious. And he shared stories instead of numbers and technicalities.

We always organized dinners after the tastings so everyone could share their experiences. I remember in Guangzhou, I had to find a bunch of grapes so we could squeeze them for juice and show people at the tasting how the wine-making process started.

I organized all of the events with international hotels as they had better facilities. We always stayed in the same hotel, so we could plan more closely.

What we were doing was new, and people were craving knowledge and new life experiences. Our trip was not only about wine, but also to let our group have a taste of each place to get insights into local cuisines, because wine and food are inseparable. We went to a wet market in Guangzhou. The wet markets, not the supermarkets, are the best representations of life and culture in each city.

We went to see Chinese acrobats in Beijing. We also took a side trip to Xian to see the terracotta warriors. Jean-Michel brought a book about China, a thick paperback in French, and read it whenever we were on the planes or trains.

We also went to Taiwan, together with Pierre Montagnac. Subsequently, we did tasting and dinner events in Hong Kong and China.

People from all walks of life came to these events. There was one event in Hong Kong where he had to cap attendance after 160 people signed up. Some of the young professionals in our photos are now in senior positions in the wine and hospitality industry.

Every wine tasting and wine dinner was the same. Jean-Michel was sharing stories, not selling wines. He was sharing stories that touched everyone’s heart. And those stories went beyond Lynch-Bages. Actually, he talked very little about his wines but very much about others, and about culture, history and lifestyle. He captured everyone’s heart.

JM was so at ease, and thoughtful, down to the smallest details.

I always travel with a Swiss Army knife. During our tour, I forgot to place it in my check-in luggage and, to avoid causing delay, I left it behind. That took some time and I was the last to clear security. Everyone was waiting.

Jean-Michel asked what took so long and I explained my carelessness in not checking in my knife.

During our tour, Jean-Michel asked me to join him in Los Angeles that October as the Commanderie de Bordeaux was hosting a dinner in his honor. I took my garment bag and a few necessities. On arriving in LA, the immigration officer asked me how long I was staying in the country, and my answer was precise: one night for dinner. He looked at me, smiled, and let me go.

I went to Le Dome early that evening. Eddy [Kerkhofs], who was with us on the trip to China, was owner of this restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. I was standing at the bar near the entrance, having a glass of wine.

Jean-Michel walked in a few minutes later and straight to me. He pulled from his pocket a Swiss Army knife. That’s how Jean-Michel was.

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