Booze, business and politics.

Three books that shine very different lights on alcohol, its international reach and the personalities behind the products make interesting reading for anyone intrigued by how the international wine trade has evolved and continues to do so.

Over 30 years ago, back in the days before I really worked in wine, I sat next to Peter Max Sichel at a lunch in New York City. Fresh from grad school in Paris it was my first trip to the US in a semi professional role; helping out a non-English speaking friend promote his wines in the American market. It was quite a trip. As well as getting me hooked on the wine business, I also met my future husband.

Peter Max was a charming dining companion, this was back in the mid 80s when Blue Nun was still a major brand selling over a million cases every year in the US alone. At the grand age of 93, he has just published his memoirs,The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy. The book reads like a chat with a friend, cheerful and fondly told tales of friends and adventures from his childhood in Germany, schooling in the UK, his exodus across Europe via Bordeaux in the war, his time at the CIA and finally as a major player in the wine world when wine was become part of the everyday life of many Americans. It is a fascinating social history as well as a history of wine. He certainly has the authority to claim ‘It is safe to say that there has been more progress in making good wines in the last forty years than in the previous five hundred’.

The Secrets of Peter Max Sichel's Life
The Secrets of Peter Max Sichel’s Life

In the wine world he is known for his role in making bringing Blue Nun the first global wine brand but little did I know at the time what an interesting man I was sitting to at lunch that day. Blue Nun still exists, although no longer in the  Sichel portfolio which now better known for Château Palmer and Chateau Angludet in Bordeaux as well as their Bordeaux brands such as Sirius. Should you fancy a trip down memory lane, the Blue Nun web site takes you back through the old labels and advertising, goodness the wine world has changed.

In his conclusions he mentions the current role of China in the wine world. He should know, he was stationed in Hong Kong with the CIA and was well ahead of the curve suggesting matching Chinese food with Blue Nun as you can see with a video with Ken Hom on the Blue Nun site. Sweet Bordeaux wines are still banging the same drum, promoting sweet with Chinese Cuisine today.

Since the Middle Ages, Great Britain has always been the leading market for Bordeaux. The US market for wine that Peter describes so well never toppled it from its pinnacle but China did. Chinese demand for Bordeaux has been growing quickly since 2009. In 2012, as the pricey 2010s were delivered, China’s purchases peaked at almost 354 million Euros and the at UK about 420 million euros but the volumes are not the same. England is cherry picking buying ‘only’ 250 K hl, whereas the volumes in China are almost double (no wonder British wine critics are always giving Bordeaux a hard time about being so expensive!). Some of that wine heading to the UK may well end up in China too.

Purchases by both markets have come down from these heady heights, volumes have remained relatively stable in the UK but prices have come down, unsurprisingly with the subsequent more affordable vintages but volumes are down considerably in China – volatile stuff.

If you want to understand what is really behind this volatility and how it is affecting the global market for Bordeaux, I highly recommend Suzanne Mustacich’s new book Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines.

Thirsty Dragon
Thirsty Dragon

Suzanne is an American journalist based in Bordeaux and is a contributing editor for the Wine Spectator. She uses her journalistic skills to get to the bottom of the Bordeaux boom in China and who are the major players behind it. It’s more complicated than it sounds with London and Hong Kong playing key roles and investment in vineyards going backwards and forwards between Bordeaux and China – it’s not a one way flow. It is a rip-roaring tale of personalities, both Chinese and French, buying, investing, marketing and making wine.

The Chinese market is a fascinating one, China has, despite it’s image for flamboyant purchases, settled firmly in the affordable range of Bordeaux, in no small part to restrictions in the official ‘gift’ market. If it has Bordeaux on the bottle that’ll do nicely, and this, as Suzanne explains so well, is why the Bordeaux chateaux purchased by the Chinese in Bordeaux are mainly from the affordable Entre Deux Mers region. We are talking about 100 approximately out of over 7 000 so not exactly the invasion some press coverage would have us believe. The two books show an interesting comparison between how the wine world used to function and how it is functioning today.

Drinking in America
Drinking in America

The third book  takes us back to the US, and back in time. It is not specifically about wine but about the role of alcohol in making America the land it is today. Susan Cheever’s Drinking in America: Our Secret History is written with a definite bias against booze, the author has obvious had her issues with drink herself and in her family as alcoholism raises its ugly head regularly and in a very personal way. But she tells a fascinating and often amusing story of booze through the history of the US and her theories as to how the nation may well have been shaped differently if, for example the original settlers had perhaps used churches instead of taverns as meeting houses. She also raises ideas about how prohibition set back the cause of the vote for women and how Kennedy may have survived his assassination in Texas if his CIA carers had not been nursing hangovers that morning. It makes for interesting if controversial reading. The drinking culture in the CIA was addressed in Peter Sichel’s book too – a full circle.

Booze, spooks and international trade, there’s more to this wine world than tasting. Exciting times.



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