Book Excerpt: On the China Wine Trail

chinaI thought you might enjoy using your imagination to travel to China along with Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly via this excerpt from their new book Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World, which won the 2020 Gourmand Awards gold medal for wine tourism books.

Many thanks to Cynthia and Pierre and to Rowman & Littlefield for giving permission for publication here. This selection is from Chapter 2: Sea, Sand, and Shandong. Enjoy!

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It was serendipitous that we ended up on the beautiful coast of Shandong, with its sandy beaches and romantic restaurants, on Qixi, the Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. We were travelling with our colleague, Jeff, an adventurous traveler with enough Chinese to get into trouble. This is even more so since Jeff’s then wife had stayed in Seattle and no matter how much he emphasized he was married, he seemed to get quite a bit of attention. That he found himself declining offers at 4:00 a.m. in the Qixi-themed night club was to be expected. The unsolicited calls to his hotel room from would-be escorts took him by surprise. We probably also got such calls, but since we didn’t understand them, we assumed a wrong number. For us, the city of Yantai was brimming with kitsch and romance. Our hotel bathroom was adorned with stickers with cute animals and hearts. And on the bed, we found towels folded into heart-shaped kissing swans.

We made the mistake of overfilling our schedule and requesting a meeting with renowned Chinese wine journalist, Jim Sun, just as he returned from a business trip on the erstwhile romantic evening. Of course, he and his wife were incredibly gracious as he led us through a tasting to showcase some of China’s best wine regions. It was only later that we considered the couple may have better things to do than a 7:00 p.m. meeting with economists.

His shop was in the perfect romantic space, near Yantai’s “World Wine Walk.” The pedestrian path connects the road to the crowded sunny beach and it’s lined with facades of shops named after world wine regions. A young man with a burgundy-colored shirt and black pants held his fiancée, whose red dress was a great match for the red circle shaped sign of a shop referencing wines of . . . Niagara. We never figured out why the gate that led to it was behind a giant yellow rubber duck, but this, too, was photo-worthy. In any case, Yantai is a must-see capital for a wine tourism enthusiast in China.

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Yantai’s World Wine Walk: a great place for wedding pictures

What makes the city so special? It turns out that this is where Chinese wine began, longer ago than you might think, in the late nineteenth century. When we prepared for our first China trip, we jumped straight to the index of our brand-new 2013 Lonely Planet China, and searched for the word “wine.” Of course, this was no California or France travel guide. But we were pleased to find at least one mystery wine destination: the Changyu Wine Culture Museum, in Yantai. Back when we began our China wine adventure, that was the only place the Lonely Planet sent English-speaking tourists looking for wine in the country.

Changyu was the first winery, and to commemorate this, in 1992, they built the Changyu Wine Culture Museum. Only a short walk from the waterfront, conveniently located near other top sights, bars and restaurants, the museum attracts large groups of tourists who are happy to take the guided tour and hear the story. Since then, a booming wine industry has developed in the province, including many wineries designed as attention-grabbing tourist attractions.

When Changyu opened the first modern winery in China, founder Zhang Bishi had help from an Austrian Vice Consul and winemaker, Baron Max von Babo.i It is one of the first names you learn on the tour, but it could have been someone else. When the company was founded in the early 1890s, the first foreign consultant, an Englishman who had signed a twenty-year contract, fell ill before he was due to arrive and died of a toothache gone wrong. The Dutch winemaker that followed him turned out not to be qualified. Von Babo got the job and the rest is history.ii “Babo” might ring a bell for dedicated Austrian wine enthusiasts. It is another name for KMW, the standard measurement of grape ripeness still used today to classify Austrian wines. KMW was invented by Max’s father, August Wilhelm Freiherr von Babo, an important figure of Austrian viticulture and enology.

The place was designed to promote Changyu’s brand, of course, which is well known thanks to its overwhelming market share and supermarket shelf space. But there is a clear effort to teach visitors about wine and viticulture, with details on each aspect of production. Armed with knowledge from the museum, tourists can head out of the city toward Chateau Changyu Castel, a joint venture with the Castel wine group from Bordeaux. It’s close to a popular water park and the new construction we saw in 2013 gave a sense of ever-expanding options. There is a museum component here too, but this one is a ginormous working winery. Unlike our Beijing Changyu trip, there were large buses of tour groups, exiting en masse, walking through the vineyard (“Don’t Pick!” one sign said). They took the guided tour of the winery, observing the large stainless-steel tanks and taking pictures of the long rows of oak barrels, or in front of the display riddling station for sparkling wine bottles. On the way, our taxi driver told us he didn’t drink wine, but he recited with pride how the winery got started in 1892 by Zhang Bishi. We invited him along, and he enthusiastically took even more pictures than we did.

The winery tour included a tasting in the bar with views over the vineyard, as well as a percussion set, two foosball tables, and coin-operated barrel dispensers. Families seemed to have fun with the tasting, studiously following their guide’s instructions. But tastings weren’t presented as the highlight of the tours. At the museum, the tasting was in the underground cellar, with pre-filled glasses lined up and covered with plastic wrap, leaving the white wine samples awkwardly warm. Unlike in Napa, no one came here hoping to get tipsy. As one Chinese expert told us when we asked about these tours, if the tasting is deemphasized, it’s probably not the best part. We knew that Changyu wine had won international awards, so why did they serve underwhelming wines to visitors? These museums did a good job promoting wine culture in beautiful spaces, but the wines themselves seemed to be extras on the set rather than main characters. Three years later though, on a return visit to the museum, the wines on the tour were good. Did this reflect a renewed focus on wine quality, or did we show up on a good day? Time will tell.

Changyu and wine street are just the beginning of a wine tourist route along the coast. We drove north to see where thousands of families plan their beach vacations, just a short hop from Beijing, Shanghai, and Seoul. Our hotel lobby was filled with an all-ages crowd, geared up with matching hats. The group was among two million visitors hoping to see a magical mirage at the Penglai Pavilion, one of the four great towers of China. Add glorious beaches, an ocean aquarium with dolphin shows, fresh seafood and nightlife opportunities, and you can see why investors see wine tourism dollar signs in the making.

Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World by Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly. Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.  Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Notes:

i His employment contract, in English, is an auction item at Christie’s. See Christie’s, “Wine in China,” Christie’s, January 16, 2014, https://www.christies.com.
ii Michael R. Godley, The Mandarin-Capitalists from Nanyang: Overseas Chinese Enterprise in the Modernisation of China 1893-1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Jonathan Ray, “Wine: Is China the New Chile When It Comes to Wine?,” Telegraph, January 18, 2008, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/.

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