I am on the 20th floor of the brand new Shangri-la hotel in Qingdao, the large port city located on the Shandong Peninsula jetting out toward Korea. It's hard to believe it's the same city I visited 22 years ago in China. It looks like Las Vegas with its dozens of modern skyscrapers and arteries of freshly paved roads, even more so at night with the bright neon lights adorning each building. It reminds me of the city in the movie Blade Runner (which was supposed to be Los Angeles in the future).
Today, the city is alive with people and traffic. The pollution and haze mask the bright sun. Construction and cars and trucks drown out the distant sounds of what was once a dusty, sleepy port with small buildings and bicycles. The growth and change of Qingdao, like so many cities in the People's Republic of China, is exponential. There are over 5 million people here in what a friend described as a secondary city.
The fact that it now takes about 30 minutes to get to the Huadong-Parry winery on a straight two-lane highway is enough of a change to understand what has happened in two decades. It used to take double that on a single-lane road full of people and farm animals walking along the side.
I could make out the old winery building of Huadong last Saturday when we drove to the windy entrance with vineyards on each side. The large châteaulike building has been expanded three or four times. Outside, there were picnic benches, gardens, ponds, and paths, ready for tourists both local and foreign. Inside were meeting rooms, tasting rooms, a multimedia center and offices. Are we in Napa Valley or China?
Just up the first flight of the sweeping marble staircase was a huge painting of Michael Parry, the big-hearted Englishman who I had befriended during my last trip on China's wine trail. He died in 1991 of prostate cancer. But he had started his dream of establishing China's first European-style winery, or château.
I wonder what he would think now of his winery. Everyone who works there fondly speaks of "Mr. Parry, our founder;" yet nobody there ever met him. They speak of him like the Wizard of Oz, or the Oracle from the Matrix. There is even a tomb on the hillside for him. I guess they don't realize he is resting in peace in Lincolnshire, England. It's sort of strange.
But I think Michael would have been happy with the success of Huadong-Parry. The harvest I helped with in 1987 made about 20,000 cases of Chardonnay and Italico Riesling. (Check out my previous blog for the September 1987 story, "Why Outsiders are Investing in Chinese Wine.") Today the winery makes close to 600,000 cases, and it is one of four of the biggest selling wineries. It's sort of like the Robert Mondavi Winery of China.
It makes a wide range of good, commercial-quality wines including Chardonnay, Italico Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. Prices range from about $15 a bottle to over $100 and almost all is sold in the quickly growing domestic market.
Some of the grapes for the wines come from its 100 or so acres around the winery, but most come from the winegrowing area of Penglai, about 110 miles north. This is considered China's key winegrowing area. The local government hopes to become the next Napa Valley. I met the mayor of Penglai, and he had just been to Napa on a fact-finding mission.
The proudly point out that Lafite-Rothschild has signed an intent to build a winery in the area, which includes about 17,000 acres of vineyards and 58 wineries, although two are licensed to bottle and sell commercially.
Who knows? Time passes more quickly now in China. What they can accomplish here in 10 years, and even more so in 20, is scary. I noticed one bottle of wine already read "Navva Valley" on its label.
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — September 28, 2009 12:38pm ET
Steven Dryden — Guadalupe Valley — October 2, 2009 11:34am ET
Justin Remeny — Los Angeles, CA — October 3, 2009 7:22pm ET
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