Shame China; your loss our gain!


While it would be so easy to launch into an examination of all the poorly executed recent initiatives that are mostly reactive to decisions being made outside of China, there is one program that for Margo and me stands head and shoulders above all others. Believe it or not, China is restricting its import of Australian wines and indeed penalizing the Australian wine producers. After years of investment in the China marketplace, often times at the expense of catering to other markets, China has now snubbed one of Australia’s best industries putting in place a trade embargo. Many of Australia’s wines are world class have been caught up in this action with perhaps none more highly regarded globally than Penfolds.

China may have something to do with fireworks as I recall, as they invented the firecracker but even so, they cannot put on a show to match that of Sydney when it’s time to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Once again, China Pandemic not withstanding – and yes, I have to admit, I believe the origins of COVID-19 were in China as I have not seen a credible argument posted supporting any other origin of that nasty virus – Sydney Harbor attracted the “yachties” from all over and even though two years have passed since Margo and I participated in the celebration, memory of the occasion still lingers. What can you say, when it comes time to party, Sydney-siders party down hard. On the other hand, when it comes to China, it’s well, a different kind of party that comes to mind.

It isn’t every day that I snap a photo of my shopping cart. However, on this occasion it warranted a happy snap. The venue was the local Costco and to my total astonishment, Penfolds is back in the store. Talking to someone knowledgeable about the moves to stock Penfolds at Costco it now appears that wine will flow. Starting with the mid to upper priced bottles, in time and with success of the initial forays into select markets, we can expect to see a flood of good Aussie wines popping up all over the place. Not feeling sorry for those left in China without access to their favorite wines, but then again, in this day and age it’s getting harder and harder to predict what motivates countries to initiate retaliatory trade embargos.

Before moving on to another topic, although somewhat related; let’s look at energy infrastructure. Just think, China cannot fuel its power stations even as there are tens upon tens of ore carriers just off shore fully loaded with good old Aussie coal. When the photo below was snapped, the count had reached 80 ships. But again, no go! The sad thing about it, as their population hunkers down in the dark and cold that has resulted from massive outages, there’s not a drop of warming Penfolds to be found anywhere. You just have to feel for them all; cold and thirsty and hankering for some of the good like that they all had assumed would just keep on keeping on coming!

I have been to Beijing. It was almost a lifetime ago and I have to admit, the times were different back then but yes, I have to admit too that I was treated very well. It was 2004 as I recall and as the Chairman of the HPE ITUG global user community, I was part of the launch team in support of the then-new HPE NonStop S-Series systems. With my mixed Aussie and American accent and my habit of talking quite quickly, those who knew the Chinese language were only too happy to inform me that the translators had no idea what I was talking about. Dropping every second and third word, their clipped commentary made absolutely no sense. But then again, the Grand Hyatt Beijing served one of the best ever club sandwiches I have ever eaten and the respect provided another Chairman was much appreciated.

But then again, shame China. I can only add that I am so happy to have a half dozen bottles of Penfolds 2018 Bin 389 in the wine cellar. Shortly, I will be celebrating a birthday and I am now of the mindset to open that bottle of Penfolds 1996 Grange I have had quietly lying on a back shelf of the wine fridge. And to think I will owe it all to this latest embargo on all wine-things Aussie. Yes, shame on you China, but then again, your loss is truly our gain as I have to believe, Aussie wines will begin to regain their prestigious and indeed lofty position on restaurant menus across America. If only we could visit them – blast that virus from China! 

Among the many casualties we have had to endure of late has been the cancellation of our celebratory dinner at the Greenbriar, a fabulous restaurant a little to the north of Boulder, Colorado. In this case, nothing to do with the COVID-19, mind you, just a simple case of Margo breaking a leg and declaring that a trip in a wheelchair to the restaurant of our first dance as a married couple would not be dignified. We were to return for a dinner that would mark another wedding anniversary. The significance of this dinner was that some twenty two years ago, Margo and I held our wedding reception in the upstairs rooms of this restaurant where proprietor Phil put on a marvelous spread for our guests. Of significance was our departure as we drove off in our BMW M3 Convertible with the obligatory “Just Married” sign taped to the back window.

Imagine then our surprise when only a few months later, we pulled into the carpark to find our beloved M3 parked there still with the obvious application of tape visible on the back window. Only a matter of weeks before we spotted the car at the restaurant’s parking lot, looking as if it had never had left, we had traded our M3 in on another BMW; if only Phil had told us he was interested in our car… But there is another story too that is related to the theme of this post in that the Greenbriar has a fabulous cellar more often than not finding a place in Wine Spectator as THE Restaurant to go to for that wine cellar. Over dinner one night, I passed this cellar only to see a bottle of Penfolds Grange on display with a message, “Reserved for Mark Hutchens”.

“Hey!” I yelled out to our waiter. “That bottle of Grange? Can you bring it over to us? Mark isn’t going to make it tonight and he said to go ahead and drink it in his absence!” There was only a momentary pause before Phil came running across the floor to tell us, “No, you can’t have it! No kidding, Mark would do grievous bodily harm to me if I let that happen.” As it happened, at that time Mark was Margo and my boss while we both worked for Insession, Inc. and happened to be a very good friend., Even so, Phil was adamant; no Penfolds Grange for you two. And thinking of this incident in light of what is now transpiring around the globe, I have to wonder how many diners at the Grand Hyatt Beijing are being informed, “No sir, so Penfolds Grange for you!”

When we were in residence in our Niwot home, we had a tall wine cabinet that held only Penfolds wines. Yes, we had two other cabinets one to hold “other” Aussie wines, another for California wines. The last cabinet was reserved for a mix of French and Italian wines which held a lot of big Tuscany reds. All of which to say that for Margo and me, Penfolds deserved a wine cave all to itself! I just went upstairs to check our new wine fridge and we seem to have only two dozen or so bottles of Penfolds left, but again, there’s that potential birthday Grange together with a couple of RWT, St Henri, Magill Estate and a generous mix of bottles of 389 and 407. 

As noted earlier in this post, it has been very hard to find any Australian wines of quality in American liquor stores. Indeed, as my family back in Sydney advise me, it’s been hard to find good quality Aussie wines in the local Sydney wine shops. For many years, Penfolds would auction off their entire vintage and it was in Hong Kong where much of it was bought lock, stock and barrel. But I guess that outlet will not be an option any longer and not just because of the China embargo. Residents of Hong Kong may not be suffering a similar fate as those without heat this winter in China, but they too will be tapped-out as far as a good drop of Aussie red is concerned.

That’s just the way markets work as there really isn’t any win-win situations where wine is concerned. Should you happen upon a good bottle then someone else misses out. Not only are Margo and I missing out on celebrating our wedding anniversary at our favorite Boulder restaurant but in a few weeks’ time that birthday drink of Grange is one bottle of fine wine that at the very least we will have an opportunity to share with friends. Just recently it crossed my mind that I should try to find a bottle of Grange of a vintage the year I was born. Was I in for a shock when I came across news that a bottle of 1951 Grange – yes a single 26 FL OZ bottle – sold for $103,000 and that a series of Grange from 1951 to 2015 was sold for $372,800.   

Trade embargos? A no-win (or might I suggest, a no-wine) course of action that is bound to end badly! Throughout history, whenever sides line up and start throwing road blocks in the way of bilateral trade, there has been very little that has been recorded to suggest that it has led to better relationships being created. In modern times that is, within the scope of my living memory, it’s proved almost impossible to police trade embargos hastily erected at the height of emotional angst over one thing or another. I remember tales of cricket and the infamous bodyline series where the actions of English cricketers on Aussie soil led to sessions in Australian Federal Parliament that included exploratory talks as to whether Australia should leave the Commonwealth.

Perhaps on that occasion, there had been too much red wine flowing in the corridors of power, but nevertheless, it all got sorted out and Aussie cricketers have been humbling English cricketers’ touring sides ever since.  One place where the red wine has started to flow however has to be at the home of the former Australian cricket captain, Ricky Ponting. When it comes to his cellar, “Mr. Ponting was lucky to receive 41 bottles of Penfolds Grange upon his retirement from Cricket Australia, representing a bottle for every test match century he made.” There is nothing on record to suggest any English cricketer was similarly rewarded. The spoils for modern sporting athletes in modern times!

When that 1951 bottle of Grange was sold, it led to the auctioneer to note how, “The early 1950s Penfolds Grange wines are very rare, so collectors will snap these up when they can in order to complete their sets of every vintage of these incredible wines. The 1951 Penfolds Grange truly represents the beginning of modern Australian wine.” Such a long time later and I will have to settle for that vintage 1996 bottle of Grange but in the company of family and possibly good friends, it seems the best way to make the best of a sad situation. But even in the modern times I clearly live in, it seems wine is a good candidate to become little more than a bargaining chip.

Walking into Costco this morning I had no idea that I would be walking into a story line that spanned oceans. I had been oblivious to the price Americans have had to pay as a result of China taking all the good wine and leaving very little for wine enthusiasts on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Looking at photos depicting numerous bottles of good Aussie wine stacked high in a shop in China just seems odd; lots of bottles it appears. In a relatively short period of time, it’s become harder and harder to order a good bottle of Aussie wine in any restaurant so if my initial discovery at Costco represents the first of many giant steps back to accessibility, I will count myself very lucky.

Yes, shame on you China for your actions targeting the little Aussie battlers. Shame on you for picking on the likes of Penfolds! But then again, perhaps it’s time to pause and reflect. Maybe, just maybe, unintended consequences emerge and those of us living in America are coming out as winners after all. I wonder where that would leave China even as I have to wonder, who’s whining loudest now? 

And as a very public PS: Margo has assured me that by the time you read this, most of the good stuff will have been drunk so no need to knock on our door anytime soon ...



Robert said…
I always wonder how many of those really old bottles of wine turn to vinegar by the time they finally get opened. I have an old bottle of Chateau Margaux's Margaux and I've never opened it because I like the memory of the gift and worry it is vinegar.
Richard said…
In 2020 we tipped a magnum of 1993 Chateau Lafite down the sink and more recently, a magnum of 1998 Silver Oak. It certainly does happen and with the many moves we made in the 2005 to 2015 period, we paid the price ... but then again, it was just two bottles and we have enjoyed many others as well ...
Anonymous said…
An interesting read Richard, thank you. We in Australia also took advantage of the Chinese intransigence and stocked up on some previously unavailable wines. We also thoroughly enjoyed the WA lobsters that were also destined for China. Occasionally they appeared at Christmas but at astronomical prices. The queue for these reasonably priced crustaceans was quite long at one stage so the proprietor decided to provide his thirsty customers with cold beer as an apology for the waiting time. An impatient crowd soon became a happy throng chatting away to total strangers who, in a very short time apparently became good friends.
Hopefully the blockade of our products will cease but it appears that our "interference in China's domestic affairs".....we had the audacity to ask for an enquiry into the origins of the abject apology will only suffice. "When philosophers try to be politicians they generally cease to be philosophers"...your cousin John.
Richard said…
With regards to the current situation, we are hearing more in the US about Australia being "the canary in the coalmine" and finally, the US is waking up to the threat China represents.

As this is a social blog I am cautious about how far to take this conversation but at the very least, I can say I am concerned over what I have been reading about how effectively China has worked its way into what appears to be high level government agencies and departments.

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