Wine in Mainland China
After Singapore it is on to Beijing via a five hour flight on Singapore Airlines. For any wine enthusiast who has flown this carrier recently, it just may be ‘The World’s Greatest Airline.’ What other airline offers Krug, Clos de Vougeot and Cos d'Estournel as their preferred wine selections! I must remember to congratulate my friends Jeannie Cho Lee (her book Asian Palate is a most interesting read), and Stephen Spurrier on their triumph as wine consultants for this airline.
It is a misty evening when I arrive at the Aman Resort, located at the lovingly restored Summer Palace on the northwestern outskirts of the city. This is not a hotel but a palace in itself, comprising 53 suites, three restaurants, and a clubhouse constructed around a 5,000 bottle wine cellar. To cap it off, the resort has private access to the 3500 year old Emperor’s Summer Park, spanning an expansive 1800 hectares.
The next day I enjoy an early dinner with Krishner, the Aman's capable Wine Director. The evening is pleasantly passed by discussing his previous assignment at The Setai in Miami (The Antique Wine
Company supplied much of the extensive cellar there as well) and other hot topics related to wine in Asia, including Malaysia's duty-free island of Langkawi and the prospects for fine wine in India.
The following day (still quite jet-lagged) I awake mid-morning to another misty day that quickly turns into rain as the temperature suddenly plummets from 30 to 20 and the humidity drains from the air. Brunch includes a half-dozen delicious Canadian oysters and I spend the afternoon preparing for my important dinner meeting.
This meal is the main purpose of my visit to Beijing, and I am being hosted by one of my clients. A gentleman who was born in the city, but educated in the USA and awardred a fellowship by Harvard, this client has become one of Beijing’s most successful entrepreneurs. At the arranged time, I am picked up at the Summer Palace in a top-of-the-range Audi and taken to the heart of Beijing’s diplomatic area. It is a bit like Belgravia, but with busier streets.
There are three of us in total, my fellow guest an English expatriate investment banker, and we dine in the private room of a busy Chinese restaurant. The ensuing discussion is wide-ranging and stimulating. We cover the history of the Rothschild and Rockefeller families, the financing of wars, railroad construction, antiques, economics, and Chinese culture. It is also revealed that my client is learning to fly airplanes at the little known Hong Kong Flying Club, something that I did not previously realize and which reminds me of a flying experience I enjoyed at the old Kai Tak airport in my early flying days on one of my first visits to Hong Kong.
During the dinner we don't drink a single glass of wine. We instead consume a continuous parade of thimble-size glasses of white liquor. My host informs me that it is 50% ABV and it is clear that it is a race to see who can empty their bottle first! This is so different than dining with wine. After dinner it is a tradition in China to sing, so we move on to a few rounds of Karaoke accompanied by fine Cognac. I feel as though I learn a lot about Chinese culture during the course of this evening but I also fear for my state of body and mind the next day.
When I eventually rise the following morning I get geared up for business and move to one of Beijing's hippest hotels, the Park Hyatt in the centre of Beijing's Chaoyang business district. It is a glorious blue-sky day and from the 47th floor of the Hyatt I can see the entire city laid out beneath me with unrestricted visibility. This rarity probably only occurs once every few weeks, and I am pleased to see it.
Previously, my concierge at the Aman had mentioned to me the existence of the Chateau Laffitte Hotel in the countryside west of Beijing. The combination of time constraints and having read some adverse notes on Trip Adviser meant that I did not end up staying at Laffitte, but I surmise that it is surely a prospective client and it turns out during my afternoon meeting that there is a connection. Certainly this is an opportunity to be pursued in the future. This particular meeting is also amusing because my importer is Chinese but was educated at France's Metz University, so the entire conversation is conducted in a most interesting blend of ‘Franglais,’ but spoken with a Mandarin accent!
Later in the afternoon I have tea with one of our other Beijing clients. An entrepreneur in the oil business, he explains to me that he throws parties with Lafite but would like to learn more about other wines. This is the trend that all of us in the Western wine trade have been waiting for, and I have been certain of its imminent arrival for some time now. Interestingly, this particular client not only collects wine but also has a passion for antiques. To my surprise, I learn that there are now more ancient Chinese antiques in Europe than in China.
After an aperitif meeting with one of our American clients, who is in the process of establishing a wine investment fund purely focused on the Chinese market, I elect for what I hope will be a quiet night of dining alone at one of Beijing's up-and-coming hip restaurants. The restaurant I am most intrigued by is owned by Michelin-starred Irish chef Brian McKenna.
Upon my arrival however, Brian introduces me to Patricio, one of our wine trade clients from Shanghai who also happens to be dining at the restaurant with his team of salesmen, and further informs me that my table is next to the famous television personality Johnny Chan. Johnny's weekly show on wine draws an average audience of 10 million viewers and has made him China’s biggest TV ‘Wine Celebrity.’ We dine together on Rib of Scottish Angus Beef and discuss fine wine at length; a happenstance which I find is a fantastic and a fitting end to my three day visit to mainland China. I leave with the impression that the wine business in this vast market is still only just beginning and that the scale of future opportunities is awesome.
Travel arrangements booked by Amex Platinum Travel Service.