Sunday, May 26, 2014

Alex Ferguson vs. Chinese Wine Collectors: A draw

A rare, valuable luxury item. And a bottle of wine to boot.

As reported in this SCMP article and as a follow-up to the blog piece last month, Alex Ferguson of Manchester United fame sold off a good chunk of his wine collection to Asian (mostly Mainland) buyers this past weekend at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong. The net result? The collection was valued at US$3.75 million, or $14,500 average value for the 257 lots and $750 average value per bottle sold. So the question on everyone’s lips is: who won – buyer or seller? The consensus is that it was a draw. The auction sold 89% of the lots, but the overall pricing was hardly exciting.
Some highlights follow:
  • A six bottle lot of 1999 Domaine de la Romanee Conti sold for US$155,500. It included a signed jersey that Man U wore when it won the UEFA Champions League final (together with the English Premiership and FA Cup titles) that year.
  • Another lot of the same wine but without the shirt sold for $12,800 less. Maybe it's just moi, but that sounds like a lot of money for a few polyester threads and some artful swirls of a felt-tip pen. Or it’s a sign of a thinning market for super premium Burgundies.
  • Chateau Petrus did not fare well. A 2000 vintage went unsold. Other vintages went for below estimates. This serves as further evidence that Mainland thirst for overpaying for top-end Bordeaux has peaked. Thank goodness.
Sir Alex has proved himself time and again a master strategist on the football pitch. In the wine game, however, it seems he’s misread the opponent just a tad, and come away with a less than victorious result.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rare Whisky – Hardly a Wee Investment

A six-liter Macallan M – standing tall and rising

The article below, penned by my friend Cameron Dueck and published in the SCMP, provides a good summary of the increased demand for single malt whiskies by wealthy Asian collectors. Whisky has a longer tradition in Asia than does fine wine, but rare and old single malts have captured Asian palates only more recently. The consequence? Naturally, higher prices. However, the growing demand is also causing producers to produce a wider variety of premium single malt bottles, thereby diversifying the market, rather than simply selling casks to the larger blending houses such as Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker. Asian collectors have historically bought to consume (blended or not with beer or Coke in sloppy late night karaoke sessions) or to gift. However, with prices having risen as much as 660 per cent in the past five years, buying for investment is indeed a sobering thought.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Nose Knows? Not Really

Dark and mysterious, or just blind?

Are leading wine critics as much in the dark about quality as the average wine drinker? This SCMP article reports on the embarrassing results of numerous studies and experiments that have shown that, sometimes, the pronouncements of wine experts are little more than spit-worthy. In one case, when presented with the identical wine in successive tasting flights, a panel of critics came up with widely differing ratings and tasting notes. In another case, when a cheap wine was poured into a Grand Cru bottle, the praise about the quality became wildly more effusive. In perhaps the most shocking incident, a white wine that was dyed various shades of red produced different descriptions depending upon the hue of the wine. It's odd that the wine could smell tropical and creamy in one instance and jammy and smoky in another.
So what is a consumer to do when presented with a bewildering choice of wines to buy and an equally bewildering deluge of wine ratings and bombastic descriptions (“suffused with loamy but sublime terroir!” “finessed and forward, yet with a firm and non-angular backbone!”)? Eeny-meeny-miney-moe it within a desired price range? Bin it all and go with beer or bourbon?
In this blogger’s experience, wine critics can be very useful in helping to navigate the ever-expanding world of wines. They have done a lot more homework than you and I, and they have catalogued and ruminated over thousands and thousands of bottles. So long as the critic is well-meaning (and most of them are), that knowledge has got to count for something... However, they also face certain all-too-human limitations. Some of my observations are as follows:
  • Wine tastes are highly contextual. The setting, mood, environmental factors all play a role in one’s appreciation of a wine. Drinking a certain wine either (a) in a tasting flight with twenty other similar wines, (b) in an opulent setting influenced by other food aromas and a cello concerto, or (c) after a week-long wine tour of a particular region, will lead to very different impressions, no matter who you are. 
  • No wine critic is expert at rating all wines; almost all of them now have to specialize. Robert Parker is known for Bordeaux blends (he is pretty hopeless when it comes to Burgundies). Allen Meadows only does wines from Burgundy-based grapes (principally pinot noir and chardonnay). James Suckling specializes in Italy and certain regions of France. James Halliday does Australia. If you simply don’t like a certain style of wine from a certain region, a high score or gushy praise from a specialized wine critic is not likely to change that. 
  • Wine writing is like any writing – an author’s style will not resonate with all people. Serious consumers should find a few critics whose palates agree with theirs and whose writing communicates more to them than the usual blah-blah-blah. 
  • What’s in a number? Much verbiage has been spewed to decry the reduction of wine to a score. But yes, while a product as complex as wine cannot easily be reduced to a pair of numeric digits, who has the time and mental bandwidth to remember all the descriptive markers that are employed? In this sensory overloaded world, it’s sometimes good just to know at a glance what a learned critic (or better yet, a wide, democratic community – such as - of wine lovers, that posts an average score) thinks about a particular bottle. 
  • Prices do differentiate quality – to a limit. A $5 bottle will generally taste worse than a $12 bottle, which in turn will not taste as good as $50 bottle. Above that price point, the results are less consistent. Branding, vanity and prestige begin to interfere. Yes, there are some bottles costing $100+ or $250+ that are truly transcendental, but it is increasingly more difficult for the top bottles to differentiate themselves from the pack of wannabes that produce outstanding wines for much less. Furthermore, with the supply-demand imbalances that have resulted from the rush of new-moneyed collectors (e.g. China, Russia) over the past decade, some of the price-quality ratios have become positively loopy. 
In short, we are all our best critics, so long as we make some effort to focus on what we are drinking. We know what we like, and no one else can tell us otherwise. And personally, this blogger is very thankful for this ongoing debate. After all, it’s more reason to keep sticking noses into glasses of tipple in the quest for understanding and answers.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Barack Dreams of Sushi

Temple visit? No thanks.

First things first. Within an hour and a half of landing in Tokyo, President Obama and his host Prime Minister Abe got down to some serious business – eating sushi at perhaps the best spot in the world, the three-Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro, made famous by the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Obama’s verdict after the meal? “That’s some good sushi right there.” ‘Nuff said. His choice of cultural photo op was far better informed than Justin Bieber’s, who snapped selfies this week showing him bowing at a controversial war shrine on his visit to Tokyo. Oops. Seems the lad needs to brush up on his WW2 history, particularly after his gaffe a few years ago wondering whether Anne Frank would have been a Belieber if she had only had the better fortune of being born in another place and time.
Well, that’s why the guy pictured above is the most powerful man in the free world, and that Bieber fella is just a dipstick with a lot of good hair days.


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Giving His Wine the Boot

Another winning strategy

As reported in The Guardian and other newspapers, Sir Alex Ferguson, retired General Manager of Manchester United, has decided that he no longer needs 5,000 bottles of fine wine to help him relieve the stress of looking after one of the best known franchises in all of sports. So, being the no-fool master strategist that he is, he is disposing of them in the most efficient and profitable way possible – at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong in late May. Pre-sale estimates are in the area of US$1,000 per bottle. Approximately two-thirds of the collection are from Domaine de la Romanee Conti – the most expensive Burgundy wines in the world, and a brand that, like Man United itself, carries huge cache in Asia. The most coveted lots are likely to be the 1999s – a very good year in Burgundy as well as the year Sir Alex won the Premiership, FA Cup and Champions League.
Given how important Hong Kong is in the fine wine auction world, it’s no surprise that he is choosing this route to monetize his bottles. However, it leads us Asians to wonder: is this his way of thanking his Asian fans for their enduring loyalty over the years, or continuing to profit from them? Given the cunning tactician that he is, we may never truly know.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

The East is Red

Quenching a mighty thirst for prestige

This New York Times article provides a good summary of the state of the Chinese appetite for wines. Though it offers little new information, it broadcasts (in a way that only the New York Times can) to the world how large and sophisticated the Chinese wine market is becoming. In fact, China is now the largest red wine market in the world,with 1.9 billion bottles sold in 2013, eclipsing both France and Italy. As importantly, the breadth of Chinese interest has grown significantly from the appetite for just Bordeaux wines of yesteryear. Whereas in 2010, the average lot price for wines sold at Christie’s auctions in Hong Kong were between US$20,000 to US$25,000, they are now US$4,000 to $8,000. Therefore, while prestige is still a strong motivator for buying wine, genuine interest and curiosity are also key drivers. Wine regions such as Languedoc, Rioja and Central Otago are drawing more attention. This diversification is good news for lovers of wine everywhere... well almost everywhere. It seems the folks at wine auction house Acker Merrall & Condit are still pining for the crazy old days of 2010. Well, hopefully, they have a few bottles of unsold wine with which they can drown their sorrows for good times past.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Best of Asian Grub – 2014  Edition

More landscape art than food.

Below is the link to this year’s list of San Pellegrino 50 best Asian restaurants. Many of the usual names are here, from the usual locations – Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Bangkok. A few noteworthy highlights:
- Bangkok’s Nahm is #1, rising up from #3 last year, to beat out two Japanese restaurants in Tokyo. Not bad for an Aussie living in Thailand.
- In fact, Bangkok took two of the top three places, with Indian-inspired Gaggan taking the bronze medal. An Aussie and Indian living in Thailand on the podium – who would have thunk?
- Korea has its first entrant, Jungshik, which prepares ultra-modern, hybrid Korean dishes. The picture above is an example of what they serve. For sure, it’s a world apart from the standard bibimbap and beef barbeque. Jungshik also happened to be the highest placed “newcomer”, entering the list at #20.
- Surprising or not, there was only one woman as head chef on the list – Taiwan’s Le Mout at #24. One out of fifty, you may ask? It’s ironic, but much can be written about why such a bias exists. Certainly, the physically brutal and aggressive nature of commercial kitchens has something to do with it.
- The most unusual place to find a Top 50 eatery? Bali, with newcomer Sarong at #47. Who says that resort food has to be over-priced, watered down tourist fare?


Friday, February 28, 2014

Mao’s New “Red” Guard

A cheerier group of cadres than the Red Guards of old

The picture above shows an assemblage of top tier Italian wines that I was lucky enough to taste at a friend’s house this past Tuesday evening. Guarded behind these heavyweights are two porcelain statues of Chairman Mao, created by the artist Huang Yan. There’s little doubt that the real Mao would have been similarly secure in the presence of such confident (and tasty) company.
The occasion was a private dinner with James Suckling – the renowned wine critic who spent years living in Italy writing about European wines for The Wine Spectator. He relocated to Hong Kong in 2012 to promote wine knowledge to the fastest growing wine region in the world, bless his heart. In short, the wines (lwith Suckling’s ratings) were as follows:
From Piedmont :
1997 Gaja Sperss (99 pts)
1997 Roberto Voerzio Brunate (100 pts)
2005 Roberto Voerzio Brunate (99 pts)
From Tuscany, all rated between 94-97 points:
1997 Tignanello
1997 Guado al Tasso
1997 Ornellaia
1998 Ornellaia
1997 Masseto
1998 Masseto
1999 Solaia
The consensus wine of the night was the 1998 Masseto. Even among such elite rivals, it stood out with its lush yet firm presentation. It had depth and detailing, a profound nose, and assured but non-angular (Suckling’s characterization) tannins. It’s no wonder that Massetos consistently command the highest price among Italian wines, and is a worthy rival to Petrus itself.
As for Suckling, he was in good form. He assiduously took tasting notes on each wine. He also impressed us with his amazing breadth and recall of wines that he has experienced around the world. Lastly, he lived up to his billing as a leading wine palate by coming amazingly close to guessing a bottle “blind” – a 2007 syrah from Cortona. Huh?
All in all, it was a great night. As for Mao’s “red” guard, they’ve clearly come a long way, baby!


Friday, February 7, 2014

Five Dining Trends in Asia

Below is an intriguing video on five trends affecting dining habits in Asia – arguably the most exciting culinary region in the world.

In short, they are:

1: The Rise of Young Chefs - exciting young and local chefs working in Asia. The rise of Asian cooking schools rather than traditional apprenticeships.

2: Everyone's a Critic - the largest online review website in the world comes from China and there are many benefits and negatives attached to this.

3: Green Card - the issues of sustainability is becoming a much bigger approach towards food in Asia. Environmentally friendly, sustainable agricultural production that is starting to spread across Asia with customers more interested in where their food is coming from. Unsustainable fish is something that still needs to be looked at further.

4: Size Matters - small dining areas with communal eating, great service and flavors with smaller menus and lower prices. Big focus on sharing, younger chefs with a passionate approach and no reservations. Straightforward food that people can relate to - similar to what happened in Paris with Bistronomy.

5: Close to Home - local cuisine is starting to leave behind the street stalls and make its way into restaurants. People are stepping away from French and Italian cuisine to bring Asian fine dining to the


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Last Gastro in Paris

Intestinal storm clouds.

My blog entry in the Asia Literary Review:
“As a seasoned foodie tourist, I know all too well the consequences of over-indulging. During my twenty years in Asia, I’ve had my share of Delhi-belly, being “shanghaied” by the off hairy crab, or waylaid by pad thai stir-fried in rancid oil down a Bangkok alley. I am wary of e-coli in Hong Kong and local strains of probiotic bacteria in Korean kimchee that can take days to assimilate. But this was Paris, for God’s sake. Surely I should have been fine...”


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Daniel’s Traveling Tonight on a Plane...

Beijing: non, merci.
According to this New York Times article, Beijing’s Maison Boulud restaurant is shutting down. Daniel Boulud, the founder of New York’s eponymous Daniel, has perhaps found Beijing to be the wrong city for his style of fine dining, especially in this period of austerity among government officials. The restaurant's closure reduces the number of Western haute cuisine establishments in the capital city from three to two. It may seem like a surprise that a city like Beijing has such a dearth of high-end euro-eateries. Nevertheless, it highlights how heterogeneous China as a market truly is, particularly in the appetite for Western culture. Shanghai is certainly the place on the Mainland where attitudes towards Western indulgences are “loud and proud”. Beijing, on the other hand, is much more serious and cerebral. Its population also seems to favor Chinese fare, rather than splashy European food with its creamy and herbaceous characteristics.
It’s unclear whether Mr. Boulud will be able and willing to open somewhere else in the city. However, it’s as clear as consumme that he will need to cook up some other ways of perking up interest in his fare from the local population. He can’t simply rely on ultra-wealthy tycoons hauling bags of cash in Bentleys to splash out on the occasional bon vivant dining experience. Or can he?


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Korea’s 18 Rungs of Wine Heaven

Next to Godliness?
This amusing yet strangely erudite article penned by Korea's Tom Coyner details the 18 levels of alcohol imbibing that have been stratified in Korean literary traditions. The rungs range from low ones where wimpy drinkers find iced corn tea intoxicating to those where the battle-hardened literally drink themselves permanently into another state of consciousness. Anyone who has spent a meaningful amount of time in Korea knows that its people take three endeavors very seriously: boozing, studying and respect for mystical philosophies. This stratification of the wino hierarchy does a commendable job in combining all three.
Why eighteen levels, you might ask? I confess to not having a really good answer. But then again, I’m probably just too sober.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Interesting observations from Mr. Suckling on impressions of 100 point Bordeaux wines from HK auction buyers. Basically, Chinese buyers are now highly wary of overpaying for wine and getting burned. Good on ya, comrades! Caveat emptor.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hail Again the Hippie Farmers?

James Suckling among his fruit-bomb averse friends in Asia.

This is an interesting Asia Tatler article from my favorite wine critic about the purchase by the owners of Chateau Latour of Araujo, a California winery that owns the truly venerable and amazing Eisele vineyard. James Suckling makes an intriguing digression to discuss why Chinese palates have not yet embraced California wines. I could not agree with him more. For Chinese, as with Europeans, wine is principally a drink to accompany food. And when Californian wine makers insist on making high extract, high alcohol, high school cheerleader fruit bomb wines (sorry, was that one disparaging adjective too many?) that taste like someone mixed Ribena with an espresso and a mint chocolate chip milkshake, well, it’s not surprising that foodies might prefer a more restrained French or Italian tipple.
Suckling has spent most of his career in Europe, and he makes frequent trips to Asia. He therefore has a broad world view of palates. While he is only one reviewer among many, his opinion is one that is shared by an increasing number of oenophiles, including in California. Some winemakers (not necessarily in Napa) are adjusting their wine making to revert to producing leaner, more elegant wines by picking the berries earlier and adjusting the fermentation process to reduce extract. These houses are clearly looking to reach a broad international market, rather than simply focusing on “American” tastes. And history has shown that California is capable of producing wines that can beat the best French wines hands down. If the hippie farmers can do it again, they will serve their state and themselves well going forward.  


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Chinese Take Out – It’s Haute!

Sooo yesterday.

In the US, Chinese is the new French, according to this Wall Street Journal article on upscale Chinese restaurants. For those lucky enough to be familiar with the astounding variety, long-enduring traditions and technical precision of Chinese food in Asia, one question should immediately spring to mind: what took so damn long?? Along with French cuisine, Chinese cooking could be among the world’s most complex. The bewildering range of ingredients, flavors and cooking methods is truly astonishing. Yet, too many Americans primarily know Chinese food as the stir-fried mystery meat/celery/carrot combo that comes stuffed inside white trapezoid boxes that leak juices onto your car seat on the drive home. For them, having a bowl of hand pulled noodles or the crispy skin of a properly cooked Peking Duck or even a vintage (yes, there are vintages) braised abalone will come as an eye opening, humbling delight. And quite possibly, there may be the reward at the end of the meal of a calamansi/chai macaroon. Hell, the experience may even make them forget missing that ever-popular America-invented confectionary – the fortune cookie.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Beijing Restaurant Review: Salt and Bitterness

Looks yummy
, but is it the real thing?

The recent turn of fortunes of the upscale Beijing restaurant SALT – highly acclaimed for innovative west-meets-east culinary offerings – is a perfect storm of risks that can befall an entrepreneur looking to make a decent living in a China where the rule of law is still a mere suggestion. As reported in
this article, the sequence of events reads like the plot summary of a taut mystery novella:
- After six highly successful years, the award-winning restaurant is forced to close and move to a different location because of a landlord’s demands for a doubling of rent and a piece of the action.
- No sooner are the doors at the location shuttered when they are mysteriously thrown wide open again, and business re-commences. As a knock-off, of course.
- The principal culprit? A disgruntled long-time employee who had quit SALT six months earlier.
- Her accomplices? Well, for one, it would naturally have to be the greedy landlord. (No Sherlock Holmes sleuth awards for guessing that one.)
- But there’s more.  As it turns out, SALT’s lawyer, who is assisting the legitimate owners with the move to a new location, has also been two-timing his client by colluding with the bogus operators.
Counterfeit intellectual property, avaricious landlords, jealous employees, back-stabbing agents. Ahh, what would business in China be without such elements of intrigue?
By the way, the legitimate location for SALT is no longer at 9 Jiangtai Xi Lu.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Taking Another Bite Out of the Shark’s Fin Trade


Korean Air’s decision to ban the transporting of shark’s fin on its fleet is a clear step in the right direction to eliminate the heinous practice of killing sharks to harvest their fins for soup. Korean Air joins Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific and Air New Zealand in putting up such restrictions. Environmental groups are currently targeting other carriers to follow suit, including Qantas, Fiji’s Air Pacific, Air France and KLM. The Chinese government, Hong Kong Disneyland and the states of California and Illinois are a few other legal bodies that already have similar bans in place (the Chinese government forbids the serving of the soup at official government banquets).
Estimates of shark deaths at the hands of humans have been put at 100 million a year, with many of the animals killed so that Chinese banquets and wealthy Asians can serve a dish that I describe in my novel Nothing Gained as “a lab experiment gone wrong – translucent plastic yarn suspended in a chemical bath” and “food for aliens”.
Though only 10% of international shark’s fin trade is transported by air, with 90% moved around on ships, the actions by the airlines is an encouraging sign. As any fisherman knows, a series of nibbles are often the sign of bigger catch to come.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Suckler for Bordeaux

The wine critic taking a bullet for the rest of us.

Pardon the pun in the title (by now, you should expect no better from me in this blog), but I don’t think that James Suckling would mind, given the context of this piece. Last week, the Great Wines of Bordeaux event was held in Hong Kong at the Four Seasons Hotel, the biggest event of its kind in the world for 2013. James Suckling, one of the world’s foremost wine critics and known particularly for his love of Italian and French wine, was one of the organizers. So for him, it was hardly a hardship posting. Forty five top chateaux poured 1,500 bottles of some of the top Bordeaux wines for a crowd of 1,200 wine lovers. Chateaux Mouton and Haut Brion led the charge as the first growth wines represented at the event. This blog summary on pretty much says it all, with enough details and pictures to make us punch-drunk with thirst.

Sunday, May 19, 2013
Chateau Liu-fite

Sold, to the flag-waving gentlemen on the right.

Asian buying of Bordeaux estates continues apace, despite the waning of demand growth and reversal of sky-rocketing prices for top end Bordeaux wines since 2011. Bordeaux real estate agents estimate that, on average, one property per month is sold to investors from China, Singapore, or elsewhere in Asia. The number of Asian-owned properties currently total roughly fifty. While that may seem like a long list of "China-ries", it is in fact ‘a blip on the radar', according to one agent, given the actual size of the region and the proliferation of properties that have been established over the centuries. The continuing appetite for Bordeaux estates is strong enough for the Christie’s auction house to have added a world’s-first estate agency for would-be vineyard buyers. Its headquarters? Hong Kong, of course.
Clearly, some of these transactions are no more than vanity purchases by wealthy Chinese seeking cache and cultural bragging rights. However, there are also investors such as Cheng Qu, owner of the Haichang Group, who recently purchased Chateau L’Enclos in Saint Foy. This latest purchase brings his total of Bordeaux properties to ten. There are reports that he aims to purchase up to 25 properties. He has established a wine exhibition and distribution business in Dalian, in Northeast China. His business ambition is to sell into the growing Chinese middle class and the international business and tourist traffic that comes through Dalian. To improve operating efficiency and assert more control over his enterprise, he is locking down his supply chain by going back to the source.
Investing in wine is a risky affair, often driven as much by the heart as by the head. Similarly, buying second or third tier Bordeaux properties may not necessarily be the best business proposition available in the wide world of commerce. Global competition for thirsty oenophiles is fierce, and transforming sleepy family-run businesses to consistently produce quality wine is a certain challenge. Will the new owners be happy with their new purchases? As with the drink itself, perhaps only time will tell.

Saturday, May 11, 2013
Wine Unfit Even for Pandas

Thanks, but I prefer bamboo.

As reported in this Jing Daily article, outrage has erupted over efforts by some unenlightened individuals to grow vineyards in panda habitats in Sichuan province. The enterprise isn’t simply morally repugnant, it’s folly. Adding insult to injury to the furry creatures, the expected wine quality is expected at best to be only as good as the other tipple that currently comes out of China – that is, mediocre. Chances are, even the resident panda won’t be “bamboo-zled” (sorry) into consuming the stuff.
Producing premium wine is a herculean effort. Good climate has to be matched with the right terrain. Vine rootstock needs to be of a proper age and given time to marry with the soil. Fruit yields need to be assiduously managed, bearing in mind the cardinal principle that quantity and quality are inversely correlated. The remaining berries need to be lovingly looked after, day in and out. The process requires focus, energy and money. And that’s just to produce the grapes, not to mention convert them into international-quality wine. No one in China has yet come close to getting it right. Asking the panda to chip in by contributing their land is not likely going to change that circumstance.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Still a Bulli Market in Hong Kong

The wave of “molecular cooking” as inspired by Ferran Adria’s El Bulli restaurant (closed in July 2011) may have crested in favor of local-sourced cooking. However, enthusiasm for Adria’s innovations seems alive and well if judged by the results of a Sotheby’s auction held in Hong Kong this past week. The event was aimed at raising money for his El Bulli Foundation – a culinary think tank (“sink” tank?) aimed at promoting creativity in food. Proceeds totaled US$1.8 million, or 50% more than the high end of the estimated price range. Mr. Adria was decidedly happy with the result, and is looking forward to a similar auction event to be held in New York on April 26.
Items auctioned included 445 batches of wine, restaurant paraphernalia, and a dinner for four with the master himself. As expected from the price-insensitive Hong Kong bidders, there were eye-popping numbers paid. The dinner for four people in Barcelona went for US$28,300. A three-bottle lot of DRC wines went for US$72,200. A six-bottle lot of Vega Sicilia (Spain’s most prized red wine) went for $47,400. There was nothing molecular about those figures...


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Billionaires and their Bottles – A price de-coupling

Billionaires, particularly from China, seem to have had their fill of chasing premium wines to stock their cellars. As shown in this interesting graph linking the price of fine wines (the Liv-Ex index) with the number of billionaires, the historically close correlation de-coupled in 2012. In short, while the number of billionaires continued to rise, fine wine prices fell. Clearly, the price levels that had been reached in 2011 were unsustainable. Furthermore, it’s a general rule that billionaires did not get to their lofty perches on top of the financial world by being fools with their money for long.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Tang of Counterfeit

On second thought, give me back that bottle.

It speaks volumes about Hong Kong’s money culture that the lead story in Tuesday’s South China Morning Post newspaper had to do with a Christie’s auction of fine wine. Naturally, the topic of the article was saucier than most wine stories, since it dealt with former Chief Secretary Henry Tang and suspicions that three of his 809 lots sold over the weekend might be fakes. 
In general, the auction was well-received. The 809 lots of burgundy with vintages ranging from 1949 to 2010 were sold for US$6.2 million, resulting in an average lot value of $7,600. The priciest lot was six magnums (each bottle the equivalent of two “regular” bottles) of 1995 Romanee Conti, which sold for $129,000.
However, with all things Henry Tang these days, the event was not free of controversy. As reported in the lead SCMP article, a US-based lawyer circulated online a detailed allegation that three lots - a Methuselah (a biblical word used to describe an aptly biblical six-liter bottle) of 1971 La Tache, a case of 1978 DRC Montrachet, and a three-bottle lot of 1959 Romanee Conti – were potentially counterfeit. The lawyer cited irregular signature labels, bottle numbering, and seal wax coloration.
For Henry Tang’s part, he went on record saying he had “no reason to doubt their authenticity.” and he and Christie's are standing by their claims of integrity. Nevertheless, the Methuselah was withdrawn from the auction “as a precautionary measure”. The other two lots were sold for quite steamy prices. However, if they are found to indeed be fake, it will be a case for the police to investigate.
While this story is not as racy as the Ruby Kurniawan fraud case, it nevertheless reinforces that pitfalls abound in the high-end wine trade and the big money that is now associated with it in Asia. If highly sophisticated parties such as Mr. Tang and Christie’s can themselves be duped into buying and selling plonk masquerading as royalty, then anyone can be so victimized. Caveat emptor. No whining.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

The World’s Greatest Wine Collector

Henry Tang doing what he does best. It’s not campaigning for public office.

In advance of this week’s Christie’s auction of a small portion of Henry Tang’s collection of burgundy wines is this 

blog entry by James Suckling. Suckling is one of the world’s most famous wine critics, having been the European bureau chief for the Wine Spectator for many years before breaking out on his own in 2010. So when Suckling refers to Henry Tang as “the world’s greatest wine collector”, that’s saying something. The blog includes an interview of Henry Tang by Christie’s Simon Tam where Mr. Tang talks about his favorite passion. While the interview may not be as entertaining as watching him skirt around the issue of illegal basements and Hong Kong election shenanigans, it is an interesting and educational discussion about wine’s diversity and how it pairs with Chinese food.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Top 50 Asian Restaurants – 2013’s Satisfying Taste

Diverse, but biased towards the “World Cities”

The List is out, and the results are interesting. The pie chart above shows the geographic distribution of the fifty winners. My observations are as follows:
  • 19 names, or 38%, are from the “World Cities” of Hong Kong (including Robuchon in Macau) and Singapore. Obviously, these are two places where money and multinationalism combine in a hearty stew.
  • Purely Asian cuisine (lumping together Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Thai etc.) account for 22 names, or 44%. Another 12 restaurants (24%) serve “transnational” food with heavy regional influences. The remaining 16 names (32%) are Western – primarily French and Italian. I was heartened to see the strong representation of Asian cooking, a stark contrast to the paucity of Asian names in the World Top 50 list.
  • Singapore trumped Hong Kong (and all other locations), with 10 names. No doubt there is more than a little steam rising out of a few white toques in China’s leading SAR.
  • The top two names are in Tokyo. However, there are many who see Japan as a region onto itself, rather than part of Asia. If we were to exclude these two restaurants, the winner would be from ... Thailand. Go figure.
  • Sri Lanka and Bali has three names on the list. Go figure again.
  • The top 10 restaurants are evenly divided (two each) between Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Tokyo and Thailand. That kind of balance is worthy of any good recipe.
  • Chefs from Taiwan and Korea, who were completely shut out, need to get their culinary chops (or PR operations) sharpened. Their absence from the list is glaring.
A list like this is bound to stir controversy and discussion. But that’s the point. As long as debaters keep the number of flung knives and forks to a minimum, this list is a good excuse for people to gather around a table and gorge their hearts and souls. Wèikǒu hǎo!


Friday, February 22, 2013

Coming Monday, Feb 25: Asia’s Best Restaurants – Yum or Yawn?

Transnationalism never tasted so good.

On Monday, February 25, at an event in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, Restaurant magazine will unveil its inaugural list of Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants. As detailed in this SCMP article, the list was devised as an attempt to make amends for giving the vast Asia region a bit of a short shrift in the World’s Top 50 Restaurant listing last spring. As summarized in this blog in May 2012, only six of the fifty eateries were from Asia. The top ranked (Iggy’s in Singapore) was at a relatively lowly 26th. Furthermore, only two of the six restaurants (from Japan and Thailand) were purely Asian; the others were western or “transnational” cuisine. Inexplicably, none of the top 50 were Chinese. In fact, only one purely Chinese restaurant (Lung King Heen in Hong Kong) cracked the top 100 names.
A key debating point will be to see what proportion and ranking of the Asian Top 50 will be western versus Asian cuisine. Another sub-competition will be Japan versus the Rest of Asia. There is little doubt that western or transnational restaurants such as Iggy’s, Narisawa (Tokyo) and Amber (Hong Kong) deserve to be among the very elite. High innovation should be given its just deserts (pun apology). However, there is much to laud about purity and tradition. There are good reasons why so many western chefs have drawn great inspiration from cooking methods and ingredients from the east. To see several Indian, Korean or Southeast Asian restaurants named to the list will be refreshing. And at the very least, seeing many more Chinese names will be the kind of cultural revolution that we can all celebrate.
Stay tuned, with forks and chopsticks at the ready.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Christie's Auctioning A Bit of Wine Scandal

Cheers to those for whom $3.7 million is a small fraction

If the wine industry has a Hong Kong poster boy, it is Henry Tang. He is perhaps the most famous wine collector in all of Asia. He will probably also be most widely remembered as the candidate for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive position in 2012 who lost the election because of the Cellargate scandal. In a curiously bad lapse of judgment, he denied responsibility for building a large illegal underground structure at his home that contained a capacious wine cellar, media room and Japanese bath, instead laying the blame on his wife who was compelled to make a tearful public apology.
Well, in a potentially positive-looking turn in his judgment, he is putting a “very small portion of my vast collection of wine” under the hammer at a Christie’s wine auction in Hong Kong on March 15 and 16th. The estimated value for the 810 lots of fine burgundy wines is US$3.7 million, or $4,500 per lot. His market timing is good and takes advantage of the shift in buying interest by Chinese wine lovers from Bordeaux to Burgundy during the past year.
His motivation for selling?  "I realized that I have far too much wine and I would never be able to consume it in a lifetime," Mr. Tang said in a statement. "So I have decided to present a selection of wines from my collection at auction, and provide wine lovers around the world with the opportunity to purchase great bottles and enjoy the journey. After all, the best wines are those shared."
An interesting footnote is that he claims that none of the wine being sold comes from the now-famous illegal cellar in his Kowloon Tong house. Perhaps his wife, who he alleged last year controlled the structure, has not been giving him access to its contents.


Monday, January 14, 2013

When White is Superior in "Red" China




It is a well-regarded opinion amongst foodies and oenophiles that, when it comes to wine pairings with Chinese food, white trumps red much more often than not. Despite the wide diversity of food across the vastness of China, Chinese cuisine has a high preponderance of salty, spicy and fermented-bean flavors and complex, pungent and vegetal aromas. Cantonese cuisine, while more lightly seasoned than food from other regions, focuses on the pure flavors of the ingredients, much of which are vegetables or lighter meats. These taste characteristics don’t generally mingle well with premium red Bordeaux that have been the preferred tipple for the well-heeled Chinese. Even with bottle age, good red wines can still be powerful, tannic, dark berry flavored and earthy.

So it is good to see reports, such as in Jing Daily, that wealthy Chinese buyers are starting to focus away from the top end red bordeaux and burgundies and starting to discover the attractiveness of white burgundies, based on the chardonnay grape variety. Anyone who has tasted clams with black been sauce paired with a crisp, steely Chablis Grand Cru knows what the term “marriage made in heaven” truly means.

Of course, the downside for consumers globally is that the best whites from Corton Charlemagne, Meursault and the Montrachets may get priced further out of range with the inevitable spikes in demand. Chinese buyers have been known to be highly price inelastic when chasing desired prizes at auction. But hopefully, the growing number of China’s “adventurous connoisseurs” will recognize that the wine world is wider than France and selected pockets of Napa Valley and Tuscany. Hopefully, they will spread their RMB across a wider field that benefits wine makers around the world, rather than further padding the pockets of a select few who did not need the money in the first place. I’d be happy to drink a toast to that. Perhaps a lovely gewurztraminer with lychee fragrances and a hint of grassiness to go with some braised tofu and shitake mushrooms?


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Of 2011 En Primeur Bordeaux and Wine Bubbles

A recent history of wine stocks.

There are few things more grating to a buyer than a sales pitch that smacks of both desperation and hubris. The 2011 en primeur Bordeaux sale season that is now coming to a close has had characteristics of both. The following email notice that I received today from a Hong Kong wine merchant demonstrates the point very clearly. Pitches such as this have left many loyal, traditional buyers disillusioned and angry at the Bordeaux chateaux (and affiliated wine merchants) for opportunistic and greedy handlings of wine sales over the past few years.

Bordeaux 2011 - wines you should buy

There are some outstanding value wines in 2011 that you should buy. Please don’t be one of those customers that will be left scratching their heads saying: “you know, those 2011's really were quite good value,” and wishing they had bought. Of course, there were wines produced that did not get their pricing right in relation to the quality – those wines have failed to sell and we will not be offering them.

Our enclosed offer includes some very good examples: Rauzan-Gassies, a second growth, on your table for £30 per bottle; Lynch-Bages at £750.00 per case is one of the least expensive vintages of this wine on the market since 1990; Léoville-Barton below £500 per case. I could go on.

Amongst all the focus in the press on the negative, we have forgotten that qualitatively, the best red wines in 2011 are as good as 2001 – a vintage that we are now hailing as one of the best value vintages on the market. The white wines are better still.

Of the hundreds of wines that we tasted, we are highlighting below a small number that we can put our hand on heart and say are a) good value and b) qualitatively excellent. This list is purposefully short.

To round off, three consistent comments seem to be coming from customers this year and you may be interested in how we are answering them:

This is a bad vintage.”
Nonsense. The wines are very good and better than expected. Our comments above explain.

The wines are way too expensive.”
With reductions of up to 50% in some cases, we strongly believe that there are good buying opportunities here. Again, our comments above reflect this.

I can buy older vintages for less.”
If you are more interested in older vintages, then buying 2011 is less relevant for you in any case. One thing you can be certain of is when the next “vintage of the decade” is released, these current prices will go up again.

Our job as a wine merchant is to guide you through some of the wind. This is a real opportunity. Buy

How did Bordeaux wine get to this sad, sordid place? First, a very short description of the en primeur market. For many years, it was meant to be a compromise arrangement between producers and knowledgeable buyers. Producers were able to supplement their cash flow by monetizing some of their unfinished wines from the previous year’s vintage. Buyers were given the opportunity to buy wine with undisputed provenance at a discount because they were willing to take the risk on wine that was still aging in barrels and wait a few years for deliver. Prices didn’t fluctuate too much year-on-year, since this was the primary market, not a speculative secondary market. This symbiotic buyer-seller relationship changed dramatically starting in 2010 with the storied 2009 vintage. New buyers from the emerging economies, mainly China, discovered in droves the en primeur market, seeing it as an attractive way to build their cellars. The Bordeaux producers could hardly resist the temptation to take advantage of the feverish appetite that developed. Many delayed offering their wine into the late spring until after Robert Parker rated the vintage, guessing that his gushy comments and scores would result in even more frenzied demand. Their tactics worked – release prices for top wines were in the stratosphere. Yet, despite prices that were multiples of those for the 2008 vintage, allocations provided to wine merchants sold out in minutes. Early buyers were even able to re-sell their holdings at a tidy profit only a few weeks later.

The fever pitch continued into last year with the 2010 vintage. The quality of the wine produced was again purported to be very good, but traditional en primeur buyers began to cry foul and express annoyance at producers’ continuing opportunism in focusing on the baying new money.

The bubble burst in the latter months of 2011. One pin-prick was the slowing economy in China and globally due to the Eurozone crisis. Another was the sheer number of Bordeaux auctions that continued to appear in Hong Kong. One cellar that was auctioned belonged to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Chinese buyers understandably grew suspicious. There were widespread reports of counterfeit bottles and an ever growing recognition that, since no one else in the room looked like a sucker, it was them - the buyers. So Asians moved on, exploring wines from Burgundy, California, Italy.

I would hesitate to predict that the current price correction signals a full reckoning for the en primeur market. It would be naïve to believe that a more gentile place of business will be permanently restored. More than likely, it won’t be long before another “vintage of the century” appears, and the Predator’s Wine Ball will strike the band up again. But hopefully, buyers will be a little wiser and can guide the market towards a more rational place. Maybe then, the bubbles will be kept inside certain sparkling wines where they belong, rather than out in the open and in the pricing.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012 

In China, the price of a mean hangover just got cheaper

Anyone acquainted with doing business in Mainland China is well aware of one peril that is virtually impossible to avoid – the bai jiu hangover. By way of quick introduction for those fortunate enough not to know what it is, bai jiu is a sorghum-based liquor that is the national spirit of China. It is routinely over 50% alcohol in content, which makes it undoubtedly the most intoxicating of any country’s national liquors. Estimates have been made that 900 million cases of the fiery brew are sold each year, almost all domestically. That’s more than half a case for every man, woman and child on the mainland. That volume compares to only four million cases sold of imported spirits. How does bai jiu taste? Something like soy sauce mixed with bathroom disinfectant cleaning solution, in my opinion. In a recent South China Morning Post article about the brew, it is described as “fiery, acrid. Even ardent fans would hesitate to say it tastes 'good’.”

The Chateau Lafite of bai jiu (with apologies to the Rothschilds for using their name in the same sentence) is Mou-tai, which comes from the Guizhou province. They say that the terroir of the region produces some seriously tasty sorghum, and the Mou-tai brand is as fiercely guarded as any Appellation Origine Controllee tipple would be elsewhere. It is the bai jiu of choice for China’s rich and powerful. Up until recently, it was practically de rigueur to serve Mou-tai at official banquets and other festive business gatherings. And similar to the best cognacs, armagnacs, ports and whiskeys, old and rare vintages matter. A 1958 bottle sold for a gut-churning US$230,000 in 2010. It’s not clear that taste has anything to do with price. Rather, it is rarity value and the opportunity to re-live the history of the country’s founding communist fathers that is the aim of buyers - although how much patriotic nostalgia is retained the morning after is far from clear.

However, the market for Mou-tai and other premium brands of bai jiu took a stumble in March of this year when it was essentially banned from consumption at official functions. The prohibition was a result of government officials’ desire not to appear overly ostentatious and conspicuously consumptive in the face of the ongoing Bo Xilai scandal and the tough global market conditions. Clearly, some smart guys at the top of the Communist Party pyramid figured out that mixing highly alcoholic booze, women and money-talk led to some rather indiscrete dealings afterwards, stuff that might be embarrassing during these austere times. After rising tenfold in price over the past decade, top-end bai jiu prices have fallen by 30-40%. In April, a 1959 Mou-tai sold for “only” US$23,500, a mere 10% of the price of its one-year-older brother.

Despite the softened demand, luxury alcohol brand companies such as LVMH and Diageo have invested into major premium bai jiu producers (Wenjun Distillery and Quanxing, respectively). The prevailing feeling is that the official ban is a temporary matter, imposed during a year of political transition. Those who know China do not believe that demand for a drink that has been so closely connected with China’s ascendancy can remain bottled up forever. It’s a safe bet that, despite government edicts and consumers’ evolving tastes for fine wine and other beverages, bai jiu is here to stay. Yes, that could well be, judging by the continuing popularity of soju in Korea and sake in Japan. Just please don’t make me have to toast to bai jiu’s enduring success.  


Friday, June 15, 2012
Wine Caveat Emptor – The Story Lingers On...

Fake wine labels found in Rudy Kurniawan’s house.

I blogged about the Ruby Kurniawan wine fraud story on March 10 (“Wine – Delicate and With More than a Hint of Fraud’). It’s good to see that the story is getting more air time in the form of a long, detailed article in Vanity Fair this month as well as through a possible film. The story has been optioned by a movie producer who was one of Ruby K’s victims, which provides a good reminder of a valuable axiom – if you’re going to piss someone off by cheating them, better not to target media moguls.

The more often that Asian wine collectors – who are generally more eager these days than Westerners to build cellars of fine old wine, as well as less knowledgeable about the intricacies of wine from Burgundy – are reminded of the pitfalls of hastily throwing money around, the better for everyone. Except the crooks.

Vanity Fair
Deadline Hollywood



Sunday, May 13, 2012 

Korea – Manufacturer of Cars, Computer Chips and... Caviar

This story about sustainable caviar production is almost heartwarming. It highlights the benefits of having a long term vision and patience, as well as the idea of doing well by doing good. Okay, so it’d be better if rich people altogether lost the taste for expensive fish roe. But if that isn’t realistically going to happen, then perhaps this farmer has found the the best way to indulge their desires. 

Catering to Caviar Tastes From an Unexpected Place

Jean Chung for The International Herald Tribune
Han Sang-hun, left, a fish farmer, returns a sturgeon to the aquarium after extracting its eggs.
By CHOE SANG-HUN, New York Times
CHUNGJU, SOUTH KOREA — When Han Sang-hun brought 200 sturgeons on a chartered plane from Russia in 1997, South Korean officials regarded the alien fish with a level of suspicion that the owner of a fish pond might reserve for an invasion of sharks. After all, the sturgeon, because of its prickly looks, is called the armored shark in Korean.

“They said if any of them escaped into the rivers, they would ruin the local ecosystem, attacking and devouring other fish,” Mr. Han recalled with a pained amusement. “The sturgeon is a slow-swimming fish with no teeth to speak of.”

When he finally extricated his fish from customs, he placed them at a riverside farm in this town 90 kilometers, or 56 miles, southeast of Seoul. For the next 12 years, Mr. Han spent $1 million a year feeding and looking after a stock that grew to 50,000 sturgeons, all children of the original 200. But he got little in return until 2009, when the fish were old enough to yield caviar — one of the world’s most expensive delicacies, selling for as much as $400 per ounce, or $14 a gram.

On a recent spring harvesting day, a farmhand gently massaged a sturgeon’s belly as Mr. Han traced a slender steel device up its egg-laying duct and popped a bulging egg sack inside. Roe poured out like so many black pearls into a bowl.

“This business is not for everyone. You have to invest for 10 to 15 years with no immediate return,” Mr. Han said in an interview at his farm, lamenting that 70 people who bought sturgeons from him to start their farms had all given up, asking him to buy back the fish.
For Mr. Han, the harvest was worth all the hassle, investment and waiting.

The global efforts to curtail the fishing and exporting of caviar from the Caspian Sea — the historical center of sturgeon fisheries, where overfishing, pollution and poaching have depleted wild populations — have squeezed supplies and driven up prices. This year, as it has several times since 2001, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, again all but banned international trade in wild caviar. The trend has created business opportunities for sturgeon farms, even in unlikely places like the United Arab Emirates and South Korea.

“The shift to aquaculture and captive breeding of sturgeons in an increasing number of countries all over the world may soon make it difficult for caviar from wild sturgeon populations to find a place in the international market,” Cites said in a report in March.
Mr. Han, a native of a fishing village west of Seoul and an economist by training, saw an early opportunity in the new dynamics of the world’s caviar industry when he visited the republic of Kalmykiya, then part of the Soviet Union and now part of Russia, in 1987. Then employed as a financial specialist at Texas Instruments, he encountered, for the first time, beluga — the most prized sturgeon variety — and began to dream of opening the first sturgeon farm in South Korea.

One of his best business decisions, he said, was to persuade his Russian contacts to sell him 200 gravid sturgeons, not fertilized eggs or fingerlings, in 1997. Not only did those fish provide fingerlings, or baby sturgeons, but also yearly opportunities for Mr. Han and his staff to experiment with developing “sustainable” egg-harvesting skills. This avoids killing the fish for their roe, as traditional sturgeon fishers do, but instead allows them to continue to grow in their pools and spawn again, in around two years.

Most caviar farms still sacrifice their fish, said Phaedra Doukakis-Leslie, a sturgeon expert at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. But David H.W. Morgan, the chief scientist at Cites, said farms were moving toward sustainable techniques that, given the long time sturgeons take to reach maturity, “would have economic advantages as well.”

Some caviar producers have tried making an incision in the fish’s belly to collect the roe in a piscine version of a Caesarean section. In recent years, fisheries biologists in countries including Iran and the United States have developed techniques similar to Mr. Han’s that are less invasive and stressful. Instead of poking the fish with a screwdriver to find out whether they are ready to spawn, farms now can use a biopsy or ultrasound. Mr. Han said that after years of trial and error, his team has found a way to make that determination by feeling various parts of a fish. 

“It is difficult and expensive to change,” said Sergei Reviakin, director of Mottra, a London caviar dealer, explaining why most farms still kill their fish for roe. Also, public opinion has not yet turned against the traditional method, he said. 

Mr. Reviakin said his indoor farm in Riga, Latvia, has been practicing sustainable harvesting since 2008. There, he said, trained staff also massage the eggs out of the fish in a method he said was different from Mr. Han’s but that also sometimes involved making a very small incision. 

Mr. Han said he did not worry about a growing number of competitors around the world, because an insatiable appetite among the wealthy would keep demand for caviar far outpacing the supply. He has other challenges. 

“In the United States, for example, when they hear the word Korea, they think of Kim Jong-il, not caviar,” he said. “Selling caviar from Korea has been like an American chef trying to persuade Korean housewives to buy his kimchi.” 

After years of participating in international gourmet food exhibitions, Mr. Han said his product, marketed under the brand Almas Caviar, was finally becoming known. This year, Almas began supplying to the top caviar distributors in the world, like Petrossian, the New York-based dealer, and laying plans to open its own stores in New York and Tokyo. It has also begun selling caviar extracts to cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies. 

To meet a growing demand for farmed caviar after Cites’s new ban on wild caviar exports, Mr. Han planned to increase his caviar production from 3.8 tons last year to 6 tons this year, about one-third of his farm’s maximum capacity and about 10 percent of the legal international caviar trade that he forecasts for this year. 

There are no reliable estimates on global caviar production. Cites reported that 71 tons of caviar, including 8 tons of wild origin, had been exported in 2010, the last year for which such tallies were available — but the organization does not keep statistics on caviar that is domestically consumed or traded illegally. Mr. Reviakin, for one, says that about 150 tons of caviar is produced in farms annually and that at least three times more than that is sold illegally. 

Mr. Han’s company all but monopolizes the domestic South Korean market, where he says he hopes caviar consumption will more than double to 1.5 tons this year. Here, when the rich talk about gourmet food, they still think mainly of raw fish or the choicest cuts of beef. Mr. Han has been trying to change that, sponsoring haute caviar-and-Champagne clubs. 

After 15 years of dedicating himself to his sturgeons, Mr. Han compared his farm to a factory with “50,000 workers who can’t speak or form a labor union.” 

“They grow listening to their owner’s footsteps,” Mr. Han said, replicating the phrase Korean ginseng farmers use to describe the constant care their crops demand during the six years the roots take to grow before they are ready for harvesting. 

Mr. Han, who is 56, must plan carefully for the long term. His fish must grow for 10 years before laying eggs, and they can live to be 150 years old. He plans to expand his stock fourfold to 200,000 sturgeons over the next 15 years. 

In 2001, he divided his stock of 50,000 fish and moved half of it to a farm that he opened north of Seoul, hedging against the risk of his fish dying off together in an accident, like a power outage disabling temperature regulation systems. 

“However remote the chances are, I must also prepare for things like war,” he said. “Few people seem to believe a war will break out again on the Korean Peninsula. But if you look at our history, hardly a century has gone by without a war.” 

With such concerns in mind, he began looking for farm locations in Hokkaido in northern Japan, as well as in Maine and Wyoming in the United States, where he could expand to further reduce his risks. 

“The fish will live long after I am gone. I am thinking about who’s going to take care of them when I am no longer here,” Mr. Han said. “Raising sturgeon, I have learned a lot about time, human mortality and environmental preservation.” 


Tuesday, May 2, 2012
World’s Top 50 Restaurants – My Nibbles and Beef

The San Pellegrino World’s Top 50 Restaurants list for 2012 is out. 

The Danish restaurant Noma that focuses on local Nordic ingredients took top honors again. Given my focus on all-things-Asian in this blog, here are the Asian entries. 

Any such list will generate divided opinions and controversy, and this one is no exception. The results that were noteworthy to me were as follows:

- Very few names were from Asia, including Japan. Six out of fifty is not a good showing;
- Even fewer names were from Greater China (one from HK, none from China or Taiwan);
- With one exception – Nihon Ryori RyuGin – all the names relate to Transnational (otherwise known in the previous decades as “fusion”) themes. Even Nahm, which is a Thai restaurant, was created by a Westerner;
- No Chinese or Indian restaurants made the list.

A peek at the 51-100 list of restaurants shows only a slight improvement for Asian establishments – there are nine names. Of these, one is “molecular Chinese” (Bo Innovation in Hong Kong), one is Indian (Bukhara in Delhi) and one is unadulteratedly Chinese (Lung King Heen in Hong Kong). The rest are Western-style restaurants.

The results were compiled by a survey of over 800 serious foodies from around the world. These experts were asked to pick four restaurants from their regions and three from outside, all of which they had to have visited in the past 18 months. The final ranking was a simple points tally.

My humble view? I don’t have an objection to any of these names being included. The restaurants that I have had the pleasure of visiting are all outstanding; they are trailblazingly innovative. However, I can’t help but notice how little appreciation the world has for purely Asian cooking. Chinese food in particular has an astonishing variety of tastes, ingredients and cooking methods. It can pair incredibly well with the finest wines (ever had Peking Duck with a fine burgundy? or braised vintage abalone with a well-aged Bordeaux?) and yet go down incredibly refreshingly with a plain bottled beer. Furthermore, Asian food is by definition “local” and, when done even remotely properly, organic. Asian restaurants seldom fly in ingredients from all over the world, as the best Western restaurants are now prone to do. Restaurant rankings are based on the personal experiences of the reviews. This bias is fine – how else can such lists be compiled? I hope (and predict) that, over the coming years, as Asian food continues to proliferate, more purely Asian restaurants will appear with increased regularity on these lists.

One honorable mention should go to a New York restaurant – Momufuku Ssam Bar – #37. It is the creation of a Korean American – David Chang. The philosophy behind the cooking is Korean, though the ingredients may not always be. For example, duck appears frequently as the meat on the menu – not something that customers find in typical Korean restaurants. I have yet to visit. But I intend to, on my next trip to NYC.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012 
A Delicious Read with a Loooooong Finish
The Drops of God
By Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto
Book Review

The world’s most influential wine writers: Robert Parker Jr., James Suckling, Jancis Robinson, Shin & Yuko Kibayashi... Who? Kibayashi?
You betcha. The Kibayashi’s are a veteran brother and sister manga writing team in Japan. Having established themselves writing thrillers and mystery comics, they hit it big writing about... wine. Who would have thought? Nevertheless, starting in 2004, the Kibayashi’s, together with illustrator Shu Okimoto, began to put out a weekly manga serial about the drink. It became such a hit that it still runs today. It was translated into Korean and Chinese in the mid 2000’s and very quickly became widely popular and influential in Korea and Taiwan. Then, in 2008, it was translated into French and became a bestseller in France. In 2009, Decanter magazine named it “the most influential wine publication in the past 20 years.”

The premise of the story is the competition between two brothers who vie to inherit their late-father’s invaluable wine cellar. One brother is a black-sheep son with immense tasting talent but who rebelled early on against the iron-fist upbringing of his famous wine-critic father, and so therefore knows very little about the wine world. The other brother is not related by blood, but rather, a star wine-reviewer (and arrogant snob) who the father had adopted shortly before his death, in order to ensure that the wine would go to someone who could appreciate the value of the cellar. The competition set forth in the father’s will calls on each brother to identify twelve “apostle” wines and a thirteenth “drops of god” wine that lords over them, based on written descriptions that the father had set out. During their quest to research and identify the wines, the brothers encounter a wide variety of characters and experiences, who teach both of them a lesson or two about life and love.

I had heard about Drops of God for several years from my Korean and Chinese friends, who lauded its use of language, story and drawings to communicate the power of wine in a compelling, irresistibly entertaining way. They told me about Chateau Mont-Perat, a little known Bordeaux winery whose 2001 vintage blew out the door in Korea and Taiwan (where it sold 50 cases in two days) after it was profiled in Drops of God. A wine dealer told me about Calera, a California winery that experienced similar good fortune when the manga series highlighted how Calera’s limestone soil was similar to that in Burgundy. Other relatively-obscure wineries with names such as Colli di Conegliano Rosso and Chateau le Puy also benefited from the Drops halo across Asia.

While my fellow wine-loving friends spoke, I simply listened, quietly enraptured but feeling powerless because the series was not available in English. That finally changed in September of last year, when Volume 1 was released. Volume 2 came out in December. Volume 3 became available last month. I bought all three volumes during a just-ended six day visit to Taiwan. I found that I could do little else during the trip other than read them straight through.

In a word, I was enthralled. This book sells the virtues of wine like none before it! Many wine lovers around the world have derided the distillation over the past decade of wine’s quality down to a numerical score – based on 100 points by Robert Parker and others, 20 by Jancis Robinson and others. In my opinion, while imperfect, a rating system is no worse than the wine writing that came before it, when wine was described in a narrow lexicon that did not sufficiently differentiate one wine from another. Let’s face it, one can only read so many times about cassis-flavors, minerality, floral top notes, woodsiness, and finishes that “go on and on” before all wine description starts to blend together into a generic cuvee.

Drops is a hugely refreshing departure from both of these methods. First and foremost, there is a captivating narrative around a well-drawn cast of characters. Without a story that has the right hooks, no book is worth reading. This one has a great balance of drama, comedy, suspense and sexual tension. Secondly, the illustrations are gorgeous. Some make you laugh out loud, some quietly take your breath away, many make your mouth dry with thirst. All are rendered in that uniquely hyperbolic fashion (the over-big eyes, exaggerated expressions etc) that makes manga so uniquely accessible. Lastly, the descriptions of wine are creative and lyrical. Who would have thought to liken drinking a certain wine to listening to the rock group Queen? Or walking through a dark, solitary woods only to come upon a clear, refulgent stream with butterflies fluttering about?

The book engages all five senses – it doesn’t have an audio soundtrack or scratch-and-sniff features, but nor does it need them.   It is still evokes an all-consuming experience, much like the best wines themselves.

Some readers have criticized the France-bias of the writing team. In interviews, the Kibayashi’s have admitted to it. In my humble opinion, if they have their preferences, so be it. Who doesn’t have a favorite food or place? Drops is a work of fiction, not an academic work. The authors are entitled to have their POV, so long as they deliver it and carry us readers along with conviction. If I lived in Japan, surrounded by Japanese food and sensibilities, I would probably have the same bias towards French wines.

The only problem that I have with this series is the three month wait that I will need to endure until Volume 4 is released in June. My calendar is marked, burgundy-hued dot.


Saturday, March 10, 2012 
Wine – Delicate and With More than a Hint of Fraud

The global wine press has been lit up over the past couple of days with news of the arrest of Rudy Kurniawan – a 35-year old Indonesian Chinese wine collector based in Southern California - for selling at auction counterfeit wine thought to be worth US$1.3 million, if it had been authentic.  It is an intriguing story arc, worthy of a movie produced by Harvey Weinstein. (The full details are provided below in two articles – one in 2006 when he was first coming to media prominence, and one published yesterday.)
Kurniawan Story Arc

- Rudy Kurniawan, the youngest son of a wealthy family that owns businesses in Indonesia and China, arrives in Los Angeles in 1995 to attend college at Cal State Northridge.  Though many of his brothers and cousins had also come to the US for their studies, all of them returned to Asia to further the family business.  Rudy chooses to stay.  He describes himself as a “rebel” in a strict, traditional family.

- In the early 2000s, Rudy develops a taste for wine at a birthday party for his (now-late) father at Fisherman’s Wharf, in California.

- He has enough family money at his disposal to turn his interest into wine into an obsession.

- By 2006, at the age of 30, he is spending US$1 million a month at wine auctions around the country.  His money, and particularly his appetite for old wines, transforms the market, raising prices for Bordeaux and Burgundy from rare vintages by up to twenty times.  Both his collection and knowledge of wine are stunning.  He asserts with confidence that some of the best vintages ever produced are from pre-1860.  Given his relative experience with such vintages, few experts can doubt him.  His appearance at wine auctions makes auction houses and sellers salivate with glee.

- At gatherings with friends and fellow wine lovers, he asks to keep the emptied bottles, purportedly as mementos of the evenings. 
- He begins to trade wine – selling as well as buying.  He offers “money back guarantees” of his wine’s authenticity, a rarity in the wine auction world.

- But cracks begin to show.  The authenticity of 84 bottles of wine from Domaine Ponsot in Burgundy comes under doubt.  One reason?  He sells bottles of Ponsot from the village of Clos Saint-Denis dating from 1945 to 1971, even though the domaine did not produce wine from that area until 1982.

- His freewheeling lifestyle of drinking fine wines, driving Bentleys, and building a luxury home in Bel Air come crashing down in 2012, when he is arrested for mail and wire fraud.  A search of his home reveals equipment and materials used in the counterfeiting of wine.

Whew!  Makes me want to have a drink to still my beating heart.

Sadly, this is not an isolated story, particularly given the surge in prices for fine wines prompted by China buyers.  The counterfeiting of wine on the Mainland has become epidemic.  The problem has gotten to the point where empty bottles at wine auction tastings by Christie’s et al are smashed with a hammer afterwards.  Why?  Because empty bottles command prices of up to US$320, if it’s Lafite, in the Chinese scavenger market.  For counterfeit wines, the glass bottles are often the most expensive component!  But when retailers in China can command up to $8,000 for the real deal, why not?

The expression “Asian wine collector” is often met these days by a slow shaking of the head from oenophiles globally, in an expression of both envy and barely-veiled disgust.  “More money than sense” is a frequently-heard expression.  And there are many cases where such characterization is alarmingly true.  There are bad berries in any bunch.  However, it is an oversimplification to universally cast feelings of woe at the nouveau-riche of China for the bubbling state of the current global wine trade.  While the top end of the market may be permanently priced out of reach for most wine drinkers, there is little doubt that the money will trickle down and across the wine-making world, increasing investment in production and improving the quality and range that is available to everyone.  Price bubbles and fraud are as old as human ambition itself.  The wine industry is not immune to them.

Analysis of the causes and history of human greed is a deep, complex topic – far beyond the scope of this humble blog.  It’s a topic better left to a discussion among friends, preferably over a glass of honest-to-goodness, agreeably priced pinot.


Tuesday, March 5, 2012
Jumping on the 2009 Bordeaux Bandwagon

The hype that began immediately following the 2009 Bordeaux vintage – “Vintage of the Millenium!”  “Best Ever!”  “Orgasmic!”(okay, that last one is mine) – just got a new jolt with the release of Robert Parker’s scores for the now-bottled product.  His summary views are in the attached file.  In short, he loudly proclaims 2009 as the best that he has ever experienced in Bordeaux, eclipsing 1982, 2000 or 2005.  For him, this is a “mythical” year.  He has assigned his perfect 100-point score to a staggering 19 wines, the most ever.  The expectations for the vintage drove the en primeur prices to eye-popping levels for the First Growths this time last year, largely due to the participation of Chinese buyers, who discovered this pre-release method of purchasing wine for the first time.  As expected, the release prices for the First Growths are similarly eye-popping.  Case price for Petrus is GBP 26,000, or US$3,450 per bottle.  Lafite is a relative bargain at US$2,000 per bottle (but only if you a Chinese tycoon, a Russian oligarch, Lady Gaga, or an early Facebook shareholder). 

For the rest of us wine lovers, however, all is not lost to the ultra-rich or ultra-foolish.  Great vintages evoke the saying “a rising tide raises all ships.”  A winemaker had to be completely negligent or a bona-fide beer lover to have produced a bad wine in 2009.  And only a few of the top growths have experienced the nutty supply-demand imbalance that emerging market buyers and opportunistic Chateaux owners conspired to create over the past few years.  As shown by this price list sent to me by a local wine merchant who sources wine in the UK and ships it duty-free to Hong Kong, there are some wonderful opportunities to buy delicious, high scoring wines at reasonable prices.  So stock up, and enjoy some great drink for years to come!  We may not be able to brag like a tycoon that we have a cellar full of Latour and Le Pin, but if the room is dark enough or everyone chooses to wear blindfolds, it may taste like we do!

RP-The Empire Strikes Back


Monday,  February 27, 2012
Chateaux des Chinois

At least 12 Bordeaux chateaux have been bought by Chinese investors since 2008.  There are thought to be at least 10 other deals in the pipeline (the investment bank that I am affiliated with is handling one of them).  Chinese investors join those from many other countries (Belgium, Germany, US, UK, Japan, Netherlands, etc) who have been lured to the region over the centuries by its history, romance and prestige.

This trend is partially driven by the desire of newly wealthy Chinese to own trophy properties to demonstrate their fortune and good taste.  But there is more to this than just ostentatious spending.  Consider that 20% of Bordeaux’s total exports for the year ended October 2011 went to China, with wine demand expected to continue to grow at double or triple digit rates in the years to come.  Also consider that there are enough fakes (particularly in Lafite and other First Growths) being peddled around China to make provenance a real concern; owning the properties eliminates this troubling issue.

Chinese people’s love of food rivals that of the French, the Italians or anyone else.  The incredible variety and sophistication of Chinese culinary techniques and ingredients produce endless possibilities of finding delicious pairings of regional Chinese food with a wide range of wine - from inky Shiraz to steely champagnes to unctuous dessert wines.  The combination of a passion to improve the wine quality and the renowned, unrivaled Chinese industriousness has been a permanent wake-up call for formerly sleepy mid-sized chateaux that once slumbered under the quilts of tradition.

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