East, West

Sometime in Autumn 2005 a mate of mine sold a million quid’s worth of Lafite to a gentlemen that he had met in a lift in Hong Kong.  It might not have been the beginning of the mid 2000s Far East wine boom in itself but it’s a good marker and a good story.

In the years that followed I would say that the words “Far East” were uttered in at least 90% of my conversations with new customers, journalists, etc, and at lectures, talks and the like the “new market” of the Far East invariably warranted a section of its own.  Yet I hadn’t visited the region since 1982, a time when I was far more interested in fake Rolexes and remote-controlled cars than I was in Cabernet Sauvignon and the gravel on the left bank of the Gironde.

So a trip to Hong Kong and Singapore was an eye-opener to say the least.

As a fine wine merchant in the UK over the past decade, life has been good.  I have been lucky.  Before my son and heir showed up I drove something fast and German and I wore something Swiss, heavy and very waterproof on my wrist.  This was previously the realm of the banker, not the wine merchant.  But the emergence of the Far Eastern wine market made selling wine, serious wine, profitable.  Very profitable, and quite easy to boot.  We did well.  From late 2005 to mid 2008 I would frequently tell people that selling the wine wasn’t an issue; buying it was the challenge.  Fine wine became a commodity, an asset of the speculator rather than the connoisseur, and this was largely on the back of demand, or perceived demand, from Hong Kong and China.  And I, the salesman with the flashy watch and fast car (I really do miss the latter), spoke about this mysterious marketplace where dreams were made in the same way as your average off-licence boy spoke about Lafite: I knew what it was – sort of – and I knew that it was good.  I thought that it was something to be spoken of highly.  But I never quite understood its heart: I’d never tasted it, felt it.  I knew that my Rolex was the best, that it cost me three grand, but I didn’t know what made it tick.

So: let’s get to the point.  I met thirty or forty people in Singapore and Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago and I was shamed.  Like so many, I had thought that these “Far Eastern consumers” were buying labels, not liquid (it’s actually the UK merchants who have been selling labels).  I met men and women whose self-taught knowledge of the subject, and a knowledge built in years as opposed to decades or centuries would eclipse the complacent experience of many a UK old hand.  Put simply: these guys know their kit.

I’m pretty good at Burgundy.  I’m not Allen Meadows or Jasper Morris but I’m pretty good: I know my kit, I’m the next rung or two down.  I’m also a half-reasonable blind taster (and reason, not ego, is the friend of the blind taster) but I was whipped by our hosts on more than one occasion.  You can have paper knowledge coming out of your ears, you can have visited Christophe Roumier every year for the past five, but can you compete with a man who has tasted every vintage of his Amoureuses (and de Vogue’s, and Groffier’s, and Mugnier’s, and the rest) back to the 1970s and further?  Who has had the 1999 and 2002 five times in the past year?  No.  You’re not an expert just because you’ve eaten at Ma Cuisine a few times and know where to stay in Beaune.

To finish: I know a lot of guys in the UK wine trade who couldn’t tell Pinotage from Petrus if the two were put in front of them yet sell X million pounds worth of wine each year on the back of the mystical demand from the East.  Having spent a week in this mystical East I am reminded of why I do this job, why I love wine.  The one thing that is better than drinking something that takes you closer to your maker (it was 83 Clos de la Roche, Dujac in Hong Kong) is drinking it with someone who understands your experience.  I know a handful of people in the UK that understand this, and they know who they are.  I met more than that number in five days on the other side of the planet.