China has overtaken France in wine consumption, and in other news, scattered reports of pigs flying. Although it’s the world’s second-biggest market for high-priced wines, it’s also one of the youngest in terms of appreciation for the drink. I think we can all agree that the less said about the way local bars tend to treat wine in cocktails, the better. But since this is the land of the entrepreneurial spirit, there are people trying to capitalise on China’s thirst for the grape and maybe help develop its taste for fine wine.
Josh Kentner and Rob Pidduck, hailing from the land of California and the British Isles respectively, are the two intrepid gentlemen behind Cellar Boutique. It’s a start-up with the ambitious goal of bringing the vintages of family-owned wine-makers from the Lodi region in California to a market dominated by titanic local producers like Changyu, or foreign imports from places like (pfft) France. Based in the Southern Business District in Ningbo, they’ve recently started wine-tasting seminars in Shanghai. They are touting the fruits of family wineries, and trying to make wine a little friendlier for the burgeoning Chinese market. Their events are all personal, friendly and engaging, bringing a very Lodi lack of pretence to a field that sometimes seems to pride itself on being obtuse.
I realised Rob and Josh had changed the format of their bacchanal get-togethers when coming to Shanghai, because everyone gave me that sort of half bemused/accusatory look you get upon showing up an hour late to something. When I’d attended the events at their display room in Ningbo, I was used to the casual, ad-hoc affair where you could stroll in whenever. Surrounded by racks of wine, you’d chat with the other attendees while sampling an array of vintages the hosts were more than happy to discuss. Here, instead, was an arsenal of sandwiches on plates, informative place-mats with four deliberately positioned glasses, a projector and a screen.
There seemed to be a bit of Shanghai snootiness in the air. Having lived in Ningbo for two and a half years, I can understand the impulse to come to Shanghai in search of a more refined market, and some of the attendees seemed to know a thing or two about wine, but it struck me as a bit formal.
My fears that they’d gone all corporate and serious were unfounded. Rob and Josh settled into a personable and probably largely improvised presentation, sharing anecdotes about the various Californian wineries on show that day. Josh, especially, seemed to know the region and the wine-makers personally. Xie Jingfeng, the Dutch-educated GM at Ningbo Bonded Area Tishbi Trade Ltd. and fellow wine importer, would step in and translate when the English started getting a bit complex. It was a bit of a surprise that a start-up by two foreigners had attracted a predominantly Chinese audience.
The four glasses were filled, one at a time. Our trio of hosts managed to explain each wine’s origins, particular characteristics, tastes, smells, hues, personality, star sign and preferred first date locations. I liked the way they would introduce the wine without falling into the sort of jargon-laden bull you might encounter from someone who rates Sideways on their top ten movies list. By the time we emptied the fourth glass, a Cabernet Franc from the Dancing Fox winery called “Red Prince” (awesome), some of us were feeling the effects, but it complimented the casual atmosphere.
Their passion shone through it all and it was pretty clear they were doing their best to emulate the businesses they represented. All the wineries featured are relatively small-scale, personal, usually family-owned, committed and with a tinge of good humour. Between getting into the nuances of different wines with the more well-versed attendees, Josh would tell us about sleeping on the floor of the wineries. I’m sure he left out the part where he’d get up the next morning to survey the vineyards with absolutely no hangovers at all whatsoever. Good luck trying to do that at the Chateau Changyu. They’d probably insist you wear a cravat (I draw this conclusion based on no evidence apart from the word ‘Chateau’).
Next time, we can expect to see a tuned-up format for the seminar. Josh and Rob expressed a desire to have everyone come away with at least a few tasty tidbits to spice up the conversation at cocktail parties, like the effects of different barrels and climates or the role that tannins take in developing its flavour. Just enough to make clever conversation without being labeled a snob. It sounded to me like a crib-notes cram-session for wine enthusiasts and beginners alike, complete with blind wine-tasting at the end to see who paid attention.
They hadn’t decided on a date for their next event up in Shanghai, but they’re still running their events regularly in Ningbo. This may only have been their second go at showing the big dumpling on the sea a thing or two about wine, but I’ll be looking forward to the next chance to get a little tipsy off some tasty vintages from a region that’s woefully underrepresented on China’s shelves. Hopefully, if these seminars really take off, we might never have to see another wine-and-sprite cocktail on a bar menu again.