China has a serious public relations problem. As a U.S. citizen who has lived and worked in The Middle Kingdom since 2004, I am sometimes taken aback by the depth of distrust and hostility towards China I often encounter from my fellow Americans. It’s very troubling.
Much of the criticism of China is justified. Shoddy, even dangerous, goods exported to the United States have resulted in the phrase “made in China” being more of a warning than a label of origin. Having said this, let me segue by pronouncing the glass both half full and half empty.
Even as a burgeoning Chinese middle class gathers the knowledge and means to appreciate European-style wines, the charlatans are zeroing in. Charges of re-labeling cheaply made wines with high end labels have already begun to surface.
While this illegal profiteering may deeply offend Western sensibilities, it may not be seen as such a big deal to Chinese mainlanders. The reason can be summed up in one word: Face. Face, not taste, is the reason that Chinese drink European style wines.
Shocked? You shouldn’t be. Remember that Chinese have been making and drinking wines longer than any culture in the world. I say wines instead of wine because their word “jiu” encompasses a vast array of alcoholic beverages. Beer is pi jiu, rice liquor is bai jiu, grape wine is pu tao jiu, and so on.
Chinese have a highly developed traditional drinking culture that serves their social customs of Guanxi (relationships) and Mianzi (giving and saving face). They have also developed taste preferences that may or may not include an enjoyment or appreciation of Western wine and food.
Given this situation, Chinese wineries often opt to produce two differing types of grape wine: one for domestic tastes and one for Western tastes. Foreign producers wishing to sell into the Chinese market would do well to keep this in mind.
So why then is the glass half full? Simple. China is easily the largest potential wine market in the world. Chinese fascination, even reverence for things Western means they are open to new tastes, new knowledge and new experiences.