I am leaving in about an hour on a dream trip. I am traveling to Qingdao in China to visit a winery that I first went to in 1987. I was doing a story on the beginnings of serious winemaking there.
I still remember the first moment I arrived at the train station in Qingdao after a 15-hour train trip from Beijing. There was a tall Englishman named Michael Parry holding two chilled bottles of Bollinger amidst a sea of people.
For me, Parry started the Chinese fine wine culture. People said he was crazy, but he believed that China could become a serious wine producer. So he brought vines from France, and technology and know-how from Australia. I remember his first crisp and flavorful Rieslings and Chardonnay, and they were very good. They were certainly on par with good wines from California or Australia. I haven't tasted them since, but I will be at the winery tomorrow and get reacquainted with them.
I became great friends with Michael. I shared his vision for making new wine in an old country. Sadly, he died in 1991 of prostrate cancer. He had made many friends in the world and many attended his funeral in Lincolnshire, England. He was a bigger-than-life person. He made good wine in China, way before it really opened up to the world.
I wrote a cover story for Wine Spectator in the Dec. 15, 1987, issue. Since it isn't available here on the website, I've reprinted it below, and I'll report back on Monday.
Why Outsiders are Investing in Chinese Wine
By James Suckling
Da Ze, China—The harvest was in full swing by Sept. 19 in the tiny village commune of Da Ze in the heart of Shandong Peninsula, which extends out from Mainland China towards South Korea.
As the midday Chinese sun baked the village, men and women struggled to carry reed baskets full of rose-colored grapes. They dumped their grapes on mats in the center of the village where an elderly man counted the basket-loads on his abacus.
As many of the 400 families living in De Ze brought in their grape crops, the square took on the appearance of a bustling open market. With their skin deeply darkened from long days in the fields, the villagers, wearing slightly soiled well-worn clothes, rushed about busily comparing their grapes and discussing the condition of this year's harvest.
China may be going through radical reforms but little seems changed deep in the rural areas of this huge country. While party members were debating the agenda for the October Communist congress in Beijing, farmers in Da Ze as in other grape growing, tended to their crops.
Life in rural China appears quiet and simple, well out of the reach of politics and world problems. The young and the old work together in fields planted with fruit trees, grapes and peanuts. Women weave rugs on primitive wooden looms. Children play with those too old to work in the taxing sun.
But for the past two years, Da Ze and neighboring villages in the vicinity of the city of Pingdu have been part of a small cultural experiment. Foreign winemakers have come here to buy grapes for a new winery. The foreigners hope one day to place Chinese wines on the tables of connoisseurs around the world.
Michael Parry, an entrepreneurial Englishman from Hong Kong, is in the center of this wine revolution in China. He buys grapes from Da Ze and neighbouring villages for his joint venture, the Huadong (EAST CHINA) Winery Co., located near the coastal city of Qingdao about 100 miles southeast of Da Ze. Parry believes China has the potential to produce world-class wines.
Parry, 39, is among a handful of pioneering vintners in China. Others include such drinks companies as Remy Martin and Martell in Tianjin Martini & Rossi in Hebei Province and Pernod Ricard in Henan Province.
The French Cognac house of Remy Martin was the first to make quality European-style table wines in China, when in 1980 it came to Tianjin, about 100 miles southeast of Beijing, and began making Dynasty table wines.
Dynasty wines are of sound quality and made mostly of Hamburg Muscat, a variety the Chinese call Dragon's Eye. The semi-dry white, which is available in the United States, is fresh and easy to drink, but only a notch above standard table wine in quality.
Parry's Italico Riesling is fresh and spicy, while his Chardonnay resembles a top white of Italy, although he admits the quality could stand improvement. Part of Parry's quick success can be attributed to his Australian winemaker, Charlie Whish, 26, who came from Rosemount Estate in Australia's Upper Hunter Valley.
Parry is concentrating his efforts on the Shandong Peninsula, which he says holds the most promise for winegrowing.
Some of the vineyards around Ad Ze resemble prime growing regions in southern France, such as Hermitage or St. Joseph, since many are rooted in steep rocky hillsides. Other prime growing areas on the peninsula resemble France's coastal Bandol region, since they are a short distance from the cooling Yellow Sea.
The climate is oppressively hot during the summer. Temperatures sometimes reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and fierce monsoon storms can sweep in from the sea and wreak havoc among the vines.
Parry said that vineyards planted on hillsides seem to weather the wet immersion better than others. "You can count on an Indian Summer during most of September and October to dry out the vines and ripen fruity," he said.
Although there are no written records, village elders of Da Ze claim that vineyards have existed here for centuries, and the area has always been considered one of China's best grape-growing areas. Grapes grown in the dusty, arid vineyards terracing the hills surrounding the village have always been laboriously picked by hand. They are then either transported by basket or wheelbarrow or collected in the village before being sold at the fresh market or made into wine. Grapes sent to Parry's winery must travel about four hours by truck over rough, handmade roads.
The Huadong Winery produced about 40,000 cases of Italico Riesling and about 1000 cases of Chardonnay in 1987. Parry hopes someday to make 100,000 cases. The winery is actually in the village of Nam Lon Kou, about 10 miles east of Qingdao, which is a slow 18 hour train ride south from Beijing. Some Americans may know the city for its brewery, which produces China's best-known export beer, Tsingtao.
Parry plans to send about 10,000 cases of his wine to the United States through San Francisco next year. The wines will sell for $8 to $9 a bottle under the Imperial Jade brand name.
Parry's U.S. agent, China Swan, is already marketing in America a Chinese table wine called Spring Moon (about $8 in the United States), which is produced by the Heavenly Palace Winery Tianjin. The winery is next door to Remy's operation and the wines are similar to Dynasty in style and quality.
"I always wanted to make wine" said parry, who runs a wine and drinks importing business and two wine bars in Hong Kong. "You get caught up in the romanticism of the whole idea and then you later find out that things are not that easily done."
China's Shandong Peninsula is a world apart from Europe's major wine regions. There are no grand Chateaux or Michelin-starred restaurants here. Rustic brick houses and wooden huts dot the countryside. Villagers prepare simple dishes of fish, rice and vegetables at home. There are few carts in rural China. Bicycles are the primary mode of transportation and steam trains still run.
A night in the countryside at the Huadong winery gives on an idea of China's vastness. Looking out into the hills of Shangdong, only a few spots of light from isolated farm- house windows dot the darkness. The hum of generators powering presses and refrigeration systems during the vintage breaks the night's silence. Rusted army trucks, left by the Soviets after the Sino-Soviet split in the '50s, and strain to carry their loads of grapes up the hill to the winery.
In a small way, Parry and the farmers of Da Ze figure in China's plan to catch up to the Western world, one of the main topics emphasized in this October's 13th Communist Party Congress in Beijing. A blend of capitalist expertise and communist manpower, winemaking joint ventures are viewed in China as tributes to the open-door policy begun in 1978. Officials hope that these experiments in capitalism will mean prestige and prosperity for China.
"We hope to learn the ways of capitalism through our Western partners," said Lin Keqiang, the general manager of Huadong Winery, who used to manage a sewing machine factory in the province before receiving the winery assignment from the government. "I prefer working with wine and I am very proud of the joint venture's achievements."
During Parry's visit to the village of Da Ze this harvest, he tried to emphasize the need for ripe, healthy grapes. He spoke to the commune leader through an interpreter. "Tell him those grapes are the sort we are looking for," said Parry to his Hong Kong Chinese aide, pointing at a pile of ripe Muscat grapes. "we need the best grapes he has and as much as he can offer".
The villagers stared in amazement as Parry and his small entourage strolled through the square speaking an unintelligible language. Residents of the Shandong Peninsula seldom see foreigners; much of the area is restricted because of the presence of several military bases. The village children giggled and pointed at Parry and the other visitors, who wore strange clothing and had freshly shaven faces.
The matter of grape ripeness and vineyard yields is critical. For wine grapes, the general rule is that lower yields give better wines. But that goes against the grain here. Chinese farmers traditionally have tried to get the largest crops possible to help feed the population of 1.2 billion people. Reducing yields strikes them as almost insane, considering the country's long history of devastating famines, one as recently as 1960.
Grape growers are no different from any other farmers in China. Grapes are one of China's most popular table fruits, and the local demand for fresh fruit is very strong. While an average vineyard may yield about 50 tons per hectare in Bordeaux, the norm in China is about three times that amount.
Chinese growers don't want to wait for their grapes to ripen fully, either, since the longer they wait to harvest the better the chance bad weather may ruin the crop.
But for a Western winemaker, large under ripe crops of grapes mean a reduction in the concentration of sugar and flavors. It means mediocre wine.
"It is impossible to explain to the growers," said Pierre delair, the French winemaker for Remy Martin in China who has spent seven vintages trying to explain the principles of European viticulture to growers in the Tianjin area.
"They push to have large quantities of grapes, but then I am supposed to make quality wine. It is a paradox."
Parry has reached agreements with some growers to cut back their yields, and has even guaranteed paying a premium for riper grapes. The bonus was tied to the sugar content of the harvested grapes. Generally, Parry will pay extra for grapes that measure at least 20 degress on the Brix scale. By comparison, American and European wine makers in warm climates can usually get 22 to 24 degress Brix.
Parry has already made headway with some growers, but with others his offer has not sunk in. Numerous times during the harvest Parry visited growers and enacted this scene. "I thought we agreed last harvest that you would keep the yields down," fumed Parry through an interpreter to one of many growers. "I can't make quality wines if you don't keep the yields down."
The grower answered that he understood Parry's instructions, but that the grapes looked so good this year that it seemed a shame to reduce the crop.
Another obstacle to high-quality wine making is the selection of local grape varieties available, such as Muscat Hamburg; Rkatsiteli, a variety brought to China by the Soviets in the late '50s; and Beichun, a local red. They generally are regarded as delicious for table grapes but seldom for wine.
Soviet Agricultural advisors working with the Chinese in the 1950's compounded viticulture problems by emphasizing that vineyards should always be planted on the flatlands rather than on hillsides, which contradicts the Western belief that hillside vineyards are often better for making high-quality wine.
Parry can at least urge his grape suppliers to improve. By Comparison, Remy Dleair has little say in the quality of his grapes, since he must work thought the Farm Bureau, a bureaucracy that looks after the interest of the growers in the Tianjin region. Although Delair often complains, the quality seldom changes.
"There is too much fertilizer and water used," he said, adding that contractually he must accept everything that is delivered. "The vines look like a jungle, and they have tons of grapes." Parry said grapes cost more in China than in other places, considering their low quality. Few of the grapes delivered are high-value varieties like Chardonnay and Parry claims to have received the entire harvest of Chardonnay in China - about 10 tons, or enough for 1,000 cases.
"We are paying about 50 cents a kilo. In the Central valley of California, you may go down to 25 cents" and the quality is probably better, he said.
Parry and the others can save a bit on labor, since workers in China are paid low wages. But the wineries only employ a few dozen people. And Parry claims to pay salaries 50 percent higher than state wages.
"It is anything from 150 to 350 yuan a month," said Parry. This translates to $450 to $1,050 a year, a good wage in a country where many daily needs are provided by the state and where 800 million people are still peasant farmers.
"Nobody is here because it is cheap," Parry said. "It is far more expensive to make wines in China than anywhere else. Everything has to be brought in, from bottles to corks. And we have to pay for the whole whack."
But it is going to take more to improve winemaking in China than increasing salaries or changing viticulture practices.
Communist Party leaders may like the though of toasting to China's prosperity with their own domestically produced wine, but few appear to be willing to make sacrifices for quality. Like other products made by joint ventures in China, wine often hits the party wall. "For foreign and local business executives, the biggest headache is party interference," according to one Western, press report.
Countless articles in English on doing business in China seem to revolve around the same theme. The Chinese are not convinced that business comes before politics. There are more than 44 million communist party members in China, and many of the members hold key business positions.
"If Charlie and I go away I am not sure that this winery would carry on," said Parry. "I am not sure the party is not more important to the workers here than the winery."
Parry told a story about his Chinese winemaker, who in the middle of bottling the 1986 wine last Spring left for a week to attend a political rally rally and forgot to tell anyone about his plans. "Business bends socialism here, " Parry said.
"It is not a problem with the economic system or the workers," Parry added. "It is more a question of the party. If we all agree that two and two equals four that is fine. But if the party decides it equals five, then that is that."
Shish agreed and added that this confusion of alliance between work and party affects the dedication and initiative in Chinese workers. The normally soft-spoken Whish agreed that two and two equals four that is five, then that is that.
Whish agreed and added that this confusion of alliance between work and party affects the dedication and initiative in Chinese workers. The normally soft-spoken Whish can throw a raging fit after a few mix-ups with the workers.
"Maybe they don't want to be seen trying too hard," Whish said, testing a freshly made batch of wine at the Heading Winery. "Most people here have to be told over and over again to do something. There seems to be an overall carelessness.
Many of these problems can be attributed to bad communication on both sides, since few of the workers speak English and most of the Westerners speak at best broken Mandarin.
For example, Whish saw a worker in the winery using a hose to wash down part of a distemper. The worker didn't notice a large hole midway down the hose where a small spray was throwing water on to an electrical outlet.
When Whish pointed out the problem and told the worker to stop, he kept working as if half asleep. Whish finally had to walk over and turn off the water himself. " He could have electrocuted us all," he screamed, seconds after the incident.
Earlier that day, Whish was told in the middle of pressing and fermenting most of the harvest that the winery's cooling system had to be turned off for one day, because new stainless steel tanks needed to be attached to the system. Such a move could have meant disaster to the vintage, since the fermenting grape must filling the vats could have generated enough heat to nearly boil, ruining the wine.
Whish was livid. But after a lengthy argument with the Chinese winemaker, he found out that the system would be only out of service for one hour. "It was the communication problem again," said Whish.
Sometimes the Chinese are embarrassed to mention problems to their Western partners. For example, Parry purchased a motorcycle for his vineyard manager a year ago so he could keep tabs on growers. Today, the manager still doesn't use the motorcycle, since he passed only part of his drivers test. Parry didn't even know about the situation until this harvest.
Chinese workers also sometimes find it hard to believe their Western colleagues know how to do their jobs. "I had to prove myself", recalled Delair, who was frequently told by subordinates that his way was the wrong way. "I had to show them that I could make good wine."
Delair said work at the winery has picked up in the past three years, since assistant general manger Zhang Quanding arrived. He is a party official for a section of Tianjin, and he seems to wield clout with workers and local politicians.
Zhang is known for his tough work ethics, and he believes by examples. "Starting with the open-door policy in 1978, there are so many people affected by the old dogma that is difficult for them to change," he said, "People do not understand many of these new ideas.
"Every now and then we have problems and we try to solve them," Zhang added. "But there are so many behind the scene things that we have to do. There are are so many dogmatic things involved. There are so many that try to make problems.
Without the support of a powerful party member, Parry said he is often caught up in bureaucratic red tape that constantly slows down projects. "we are always discussing things, " he said, and the few Chinese who try to help speed things along are often times chastised for "being on the foreigners side."
"They have a hard time accepting what foreigners have to say," said Gabriel Tam, consultant and interpreter to Parry who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and English.
But many joint-venture members believe all these problems can be solved over time. "It is a problem of trust," said Benny Cheung, who has lived in and visited china for nearly two decades and who put together Remy joint venture with the Tianjin government. "The foreigners are still viewed as taking money away from China. It takes time to change this".
It may take less time to change the way the Chinese make wine. For now, typical Chinese wineries are under-equipped and ill-kept. During this year's harvest, a winery about 80 miles south of Qingdao was churning out white wine for the massive Tsingtao winery. Fermentations were out of control, heating up to about 95 degrees
Fahrenheit. Normal white wine fermentation should hover no higher than 69 degrees. In addition, the area around the winery was filled with peasants waiting to have their grapes crushed. The winery was so backlogged that some farmers had been waiting for two days, forced to leave their grapes shriveling in the hot Chinese sun.
High technology is not essential for making most of the nearly 22 million cases of wine produced each year in China. By Western standards, the wines are undrinkable. "The Chinese have a different idea about winemaking," said Whish. "They just crush the grapes and then ferment. They think it is finished after that."
Western wineries look ultra-modern next to typical Chinese installations. Huadong and Dynasty are designed to use few workers, leaving little room for human error. Everything is temperature controlled and large stainless-steel vats line the walls of both wineries.
To make wine here, technology is first," said Delair, who personally designed computer programs to run his three large Vaselin presses. He sat at the control station as if piloting some sort of spaceship. "We have all the equipment, and we control everything."
China has produced wine for centuries. Chinese travelers during the Han Dynasty (200 B.C to 200 A.D) are thought to have first introduced Western grape varieties to China on their return from Persia.
Today, wine remains a special-occasion beverage in Chinese culture. Except weddings or celebrations, most Chinese prefer, beer or local distilled spirits. The Chinese wines that are drunk are extremely sweet. Flavored with spices, and fortified to about 16 percent alcohol. Dry wines that satisfy Western consumers are considered sour.
When the Chinese taste the refreshing, spicy fruit flavors of a wine like Parry's Tsingtao Riesling, they can barely swallow it. Even growers, who in other countries would pride themselves on drinking wine made from their own grapes, grimaced as they drank Parry's dry wine. They much prefer a glass of warm beer. The wines of Dynasty and Huadong Winery prove that good Western-Style wines can be made in China, but there is still a long way to go.
No one knows this better than Parry and Delair. "I would like to have the opportunity to make a wine with this technology but with good grapes," said Delair, as another delivery of unripe Muscat arrived at the Dynasty Winery.
THE FATHER OF MODERN WINEMAKING IN CHINA
As the reluctant father of joint venture winemaking in China, Benny Cheung never intended to sell much wine to the mainland Chinese when he helped establish the Sino Joint Venture Winery here in 1980 to produce Dynasty table wine and brandy. Although he downplays his achievement, Cheung was the first person after the open-door policy began in 1978 to see the potential for Western-style wine made in China.
"I thought that there would be great potential in the world market for a product coming from the old country," said Cheung, 54, an affable, heavyset man who runs a trading company in Hong Kong. "The product had to be made with Western technology. Plus, it had to be made palatable to an international market.
Cheung had been a university professor in China during the '60s and early '70s teaching language in Hunan. In 1974 he left for Hong Kong, disillusioned with the strict Maoist policies of the day.
After starting a Hong Kong trading company in 1974, he could see the changes coming to China and began making commercial contacts there in hopes that the market would open. In 1978 he started trading premium cigarettes, such as Dunhill, to the Chinese.
"I literally carried the cartons of Dunhill cigarettes on my back to Beijing to sell," he laughed. But his cigarette trading soured on the supple end, and Cheung thought of trying to set up a joint venture winery or distillery to producing a product that could be sold outside China and purchased with Western currency.
After contacting one Cognac house that wasn't interested, Cheung reached Remy Martin which like the idea, since it's Cognac has a large Chinese following outside mainland China. Today, about half the joint venture's 70,000-case production is sold outside China, with the rest sold mostly to foreign tourists in Chinese hotels in China.
More than 10,000 cases of Dynasty are sold in Hong Kong alone, although the United States remains relatively untapped with only a few thousand cases sold at $10 a bottle.
Besides the potentially large Chinese world market, there was also a question of building better relations with the Mainland Chinese government. Like Remy, many of the companies that have established joint ventures have substantial drinks sales in China, though hotels, tourist stores and duty free shops. For example, nearly 200,000 cases of Cognac are sold to China each year.
"If a company wants to trade in China, it has to have a business in China," Said Cheung.
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