Don’t get me wrong; I’m a smallish dude. Not Chinese small, maybe—the average height of a Chinese person is 5’4”—but trust me, I was never the first kid with a finger pointed at him at the start of a pick-up game of basketball.
As a result, I have been accused—by business adversaries, professional nemeses and close relatives—of occasionally ‘over-compensating’ for my relative lack of freakish, something-went-wrong-in-the-womb height through my insistence on dating only Hollywood supermodel ingénues, of maintaining my bantam but balletic bod in a state of Adonis-like perfection, of refusing to do any but most exclusive and expensive designer drugs and of having an Olympic-sized pool the shape of a giant penis.
Maybe they’re right. I come from rather delicate stock, after all. We Kassels are an intellectual force before we’re bare-knuckle stand-down Irishmen: I think all four of my adult daughters together wouldn’t tip three hundred pounds on a scale.
But, Enough About Me. Let’s Talk About Chinese People
Anyone who has been following the evolution of the fine wine market in China—anyone who, like me, has sat back and watched in bemused horror as this Asian leviathan suddenly glommed on to the taste of pricey Bordeaux and as a result, as with a Made-in-Dong Guan Wet/Dry Shop-Vac, began a systematic slurp of southwest France, lapping up lakes of Latour, basins of Batailley, seas of Segur—and not only the wine, but entire chateaux and surrounding vineyards… In the last three years alone, the Chinese have purchased five chateaux, including Pomerol’s Château de Viaud by the Commie cereal conglomerate COFCO in 2011.
So much for tradition in tradition-bound Bordeaux, eh?
And it gets worse, at least for lovers of the essential francité of the appellation, which may be something of a myth (although mythology is one of the things we love about French wine): Not only will the Chinese control the entire vine-to-bottle production chain of their new chateaux, but every glass they make will wind up in China.
Voracious they are, too: In 2010, the combined China/Hong Kong wine market guzzled 33.5 million bottles of Bordeaux worth half a billion dollars.
And the Bordelaise? They’re loving it, of course. Over the past few years, a lot of them suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous economy; and with a challenged 2011 vintage and commercial buyers demanding a 50% reduction in the wholesale prices of prestigious Grand Crus (which trickle down to the other crus), a lot of vignerons are reading the handwriting on the wall and putting up ‘for sale’ signs.
And naturally, if you are looking to sell and have found an eager buyer, you don’t care about race, color, creed, the fact that his country practices female infanticide and arbitrarily detains and often tortures people for exercising their rights to freedom of association, religion and expression, or that he is 5’4” tall.*
* An average that Yao Ming skewed to begin with: If it wasn’t for him, the mean height of a Chinese person would be 2’6”.
According to Georges Haushalter, president of the Bordeaux Wine Council:
“First, the English, Dutch, Irish came. The Japanese came twenty years ago. It’s logical that the Chinese arrive today.”
Why it’s ‘logical’ I don’t know, but it sure the heck is factual, and not only that but the new chateau owners are redoing the old-school labels to suit Chinese tastes and forgoing the traditional network of brokers and merchants.
Now, it is fair to say that the typical Asian Bordeaux consumer is not the $0.64 per hour Dong Guan Shop Vac assembly line worker, but one of the fortune-flaunting haut monde robber barons—many of whom became wealthy on the backs of these hourly pogues. Like the winners of our own Industrial Revolution, these first generation millionaires and billionaires all got rich at about the same time, and often try to outdo each other in stupidly ostentatious displays of prosperity.
Can you, for example, think of a case of conspicuous consumption more crass than the teenage daughter of a wealthy Chongqing family who spend the equivalent of $600,000 on a Tibetan Mastiff, then ordered a convoy of thirty Mercedes Benzes to pick up the ugly mutt at the airport?
Or, can you come up with an instance of Bordeaux one-upmanship more ridiculous than Zhang Yuchen’s Beijing Chateau Zhang Laffitte, a duplicate of Château Maisons-Laffitte, French architect François Mansart’s 1650 landmark on the Seine—only with an upgrade: Zhang added a manicured sculpture garden, two wings and a moat, copying the palace at Fontainebleau. “It cost me $50 million,” he said. “But that’s because we made so many improvements compared with the original.”
Perhaps I Can Come Up With Something Dopier…
As the picture to the left depicts, the featured attraction at the Sixth Yantai International Wine Expo is the world’s biggest Bordeaux-shaped wine bottle—the sort of thing I would covet if I were a few dozen inches shorter.
It is 30 feet long, eight feet wide and weighs three tons. God knows what it’s filled with.
But the fact that Chinese names often have phallic connotations just makes the whole crazy scenario all the funnier. The article from which I stole this photograph is authored by someone named Wang; the wine bottle was made by Jinding and the expo is held in Shandong. Nearby cities are Donghai and Jizhou.
“My wang is bigger than your dingdong.” How much more obvious can you make it, China?
According to Fitzgerald, ‘The rich are different.’
No shit, F. Scott. They are reassuringly arrogant, besotted with ego, ineffably condescending, spectacularly patronizing, and in the case of China’s newly-emerging, status-conscious nouveau-riche, they fit very comfortably into the palm of your hand.