Christine Haughney covers corruption and criminal behavior as part of the Zero Point Zero Production series Food Crimes. Here, she reports on recent issues surrounding the wine industry.
A renewed sense of eagerness defined the biggest Bordeaux tasting of the year in New York City last week. Despite a record-breaking winter storm, representatives from nearly 80 chateaux scaled tall snowbanks outside of Cipriani 42nd Street to pour their 2013 vintage for members of the wine trade. Some reps scrambled to find flights that landed one hour before the tasting began; others rushed in mid-tasting to pour glasses.
Not long ago, some producers from the vaunted grape-growing region of France questioned whether making the trip to NYC was even worth their time. Why the sudden enthusiasm? It may have less to do with New York and more to do with what’s been happening in China.
Back in 2008, long before my days revolved around reporting on wine fraud and other Food Crimes, I learned firsthand what all the fuss was about Bordeaux. My then newly minted fiancé, who works in the wine industry, took us there to scout it out as a possible location for a destination wedding. Bordeaux wasn’t the most welcoming of cities in late January. The damp winter days were almost as chilly as the French people we initially met, many of whom were skeptical of the couple who didn’t want to get married in their own “village” of New York. “Jamais” and “Ce n’est pas possible” were the phrases we heard most that first trip when it came to planning a wedding.
But I quickly fell in love with this quirky, dignified little city and the acres of patchwork vineyards that arced around it, along with its initially hesitant residents. Within hours, I was devouring the wine-bottle-shaped chocolates from Darricau, the slightly scorched candles that line Bordeaux bakery shelves and, of course, its rich and memorable wines. That’s what it took to make me determined that Bordeaux would be part of my family’s history.
To love Bordeaux means loving its wine and storied wine history, regardless of whether the region loves you back. I quickly learned what kind of American can earn the respect of the Bordelais when I recognized an American’s handwriting in a framed purchase order on the wall of a waiting room at one chateau. I was told the Bordeaux buyer was an American with “excellent French” and an appreciation for wine (à la Thomas Jefferson). But the Bordelais clearly weren’t happy with Americans that week as the U.S. financial markets teetered and customers cancelled orders by the minute. By the time I returned to Bordeaux in 2011, it was clear that the city had shifted its affections to the Chinese, who had eagerly replaced the Americans. The managing director of one chateau said outright that China had so much more to offer that it didn’t make financial sense to travel to the United States for tastings.
The robust Chinese economy had created a new billionaire class with the means and hunger for fine wines, especially top-tier Bordeaux. This emerging market was quite lucrative for the most elite Bordeaux brands, like Chateau Lafite. It was also a ripe environment for fraud, which was rampant, even if some French officials didn’t want to hear it. One whistleblower, James de Roany, the former president of the French CNCCEF Wine & Spirits Commission, was dismissed from his position in 2013 for speaking up about the problem of counterfeit French wines in China.“Everyone thinks it concerns top grands crus. But it is much broader than that,” as de Roany explained to Food Crimes last fall. “French wines are in decline in China, and one of the reasons is counterfeiting.”
Legal issues and recent economic troubles have only made the situation worse for French wine sales in China.
At the New York event last week, Olivier Bernard, president of the Union des Grands Crus Bordeaux, explained to me how the Chinese market for high-priced wines, particularly Bordeaux’s top 15 wines, began to die off in September 2012. That’s when the Chinese government halted pricey gift-giving to government officials, meaning that wealthy tycoons could no longer entice favors through liquid currency like Lafite. Since then, the Chinese economy has slowed, meaning fewer billionaires are willing to spend exorbitantly on wines for their own cellars. And the financial outlook doesn’t appear to be improving anytime soon.
“This market for the very high-level wine is finished,” said Bernard.
To sell their wines in China in the current climate, Bordeaux producers have to change their tactics. Instead of focusing on Chinese billionaires, French merchants must cater to an entirely different demographic: regular Chinese folks. The market for lower-priced wines in China is slowly growing, according to Bernard. But the different demographics also present new challenges, particularly on the education front. Bernard said that he and his colleagues have been traveling to China to help spread the gospel of good wine.
Compared to all this volatility in the Far East, the United States, with its steady demand for fine French wine, is a much safer market. “For 95 percent of the chateaux in this room, China has never been more than 3 percent of their production, and for some chateaux in this room, U.S. can be 25 percent of their production,” said Bernard. “So [the] U.S. has always been very important and there’s no doubt on that.”