Why China's Collapsing Wine Market Is Bad News For Everybody

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.

Suzanne Mustacich's newly released book Thirsty Dragon: China's Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World's Best Wines (Henry Holt) offers a refreshing look at the cross-cultural factors behind the rise of China's lucrative high-end wine market and how it became such fertile ground for wine fraud.

The book opens in early 2009, after the U.S. financial crash, when winemakers and merchants from the illustrious French region of Bordeaux shifted their attention to find new moneyed buyers for its bottles. The book reads like a wine lover's version of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, with the French and Chinese outwitting each other at the turn of every page. It also addresses the frustrations for wine-fraud investigators who are trying to fight Chinese counterfeiters with limited success.

Mustacich, a Wine Spectator contributing editor based in Bordeaux, spoke to us about Thirsty Dragon, the now-faltering Chinese economy and what the fallout might mean, not just for the wine world, but the whole world.

This interview has been edited from its full length.

How did you come up with the idea for Thirsty Dragon?

I wanted to write a book about Bordeaux, and I've always been interested in emerging markets.... I had decided that what really interested me was how Bordeaux did business and how did it break into markets. I had known from my contacts in Bordeaux that at least since '99 Bordeaux was trying to break into the Chinese market.... I just sort of was fascinated by this culture clash. They arrived with so much money so fast, so aggressively. I thought this was just a great story.

Your book seems to be well received beyond the wine world.

It's getting good support from China watchers like the Financial Times, Forbes, Evan Osnos, experts, Fareed Zakaria. I was thinking it's a new way for them to look at China. Everybody is trying to figure out how we're going to do business with China.

What is going to happen to all of those businesses around the world that are reliant on China? Every time it lurches in its growth cycle, we're all shaken up.

I thought I was going to read a book about Bordeaux. But you did extensive reporting in China. Tell us about the reporting you did in China.I've been in Bordeaux since '99. I was a TV producer and screenwriter and I was working in Europe, and I ended up here. I met my partner and I ended up living here, and I found myself in the wine world immediately and I wanted to write about it.... Really since I first came, I was aware of the market in Asia. I started meeting Chinese people when I came here. The perspective of the book was from Bordeaux. It was mostly the Chinese people I met in Bordeaux. Then I realized in 2010 I had to go to China. That was my first trip. I think it was four in total. It seemed like I was always there for a really long time. But maybe it just felt that way because I would always try to do as much as possible. I was all over the country, and I would try to be there for at least a few days, but again with people I already had contact with. I already established a relationship with almost all of those people. But I wanted to see them in their own environment, seeing the vineyards and meeting the government officials. I wanted to go meet them in their offices. I wanted to go meet the Hong Kong officials in Hong Kong.I love the anecdote in your book about the Chinese woman who bought a chateau with the name Latour in the title even though it was 90 minutes from the real Chateau Latour. Are the Chinese becoming more attuned to these distinctions?

The Chinese consumers are really smart.... They were just naïve. Now they're not. There's all this information online. They know how to use all of the information online. Plus there are 100 million Chinese traveling. We have tons traveling here.

Why do you think French officials like the Bordeaux Wine Council have not done more work to fight all of the counterfeiters who are knocking off Bordeaux brands?

At first they were not prepared for it. The wine council was really about marketing. It's run sort of by committee, too. They do research into pesticides, varieties that will do better with climate change. They're not really set up to deal with the fraud that they're seeing in China. There are incidences of fraud, but not on the scale in China.... They just never had this kind of problem before. So they weren't prepared.

Your book is coming out at a time when the Chinese economy is far more depressed than the boom years you wrote about. Why is your book still relevant?

Part of the reason the book has gotten the response from the business press is that it has hit a chord. Part of what I wrote I am seeing on a much larger scale to the Chinese economy. On a much smaller scale, that's what happened to Bordeaux. What is going to happen to all of those businesses around the world that are reliant on China? Of course China is going to keep growing, and they're going to stabilize the economy. Every time it lurches in its growth cycle, we're all shaken up. I think my book came out right at the right time because Bordeaux is dealing with a China that in their market receded.

Where do you see Bordeaux's relationship with China heading?

We're going to go through a rocky period, especially if there's a recession. But wine consumers in China are growing. But it's at the lower end...that's the heart of Bordeaux, that's the millions of bottles. They're having to sell their lower-end wines. I think that's the future.... The most expensive wines, it's going to be very difficult for the foreseeable future.