Anyone reading the wine media in late 2008 couldn’t help but notice the coverage of Bordeaux wine prices. Almost daily, articles appeared about Russian oligarchs and Chinese wine drinkers snapping up every bottle of high-end Bordeaux they could find. Prices for first growths wines soared.
The Chinese thirst for fine wine, in particular, seemed a ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy time; the global economy was sinking to its knees and wine consumers everywhere were trading down.
Yet there was a dark side to the Bordeaux boom: counterfeiting, smuggling and opportunistic pricing.
Finally, there was a bust.
Suzanne Mustacich’s wide-ranging, comprehensive and engaging book Thirsty Dragon documents the whole story, from the arrival of the Chinese onto the world’s wine scene, to the changes they made once they got there.
The book moves from the inside workings of the Place de Bordeaux, to the outermost regions of China, where the government decided 1,000 chateaux should flourish. Along the way, the reader meets the ‘ants’ – the couriers who sneak bottles of fine wine into China, two at a time – and the counterfeiters, brand squatters and upstart importers, who could make doing business with China difficult. But Mustacich doesn’t let the Bordelais off the hook, for raising prices so high that they crashed their own market.
Some of the revelations are jaw-dropping, such as the way that Bordeaux officials could have foiled a major counterfeiting ring, if they hadn’t fumbled it at the last minute. Or the reason why sales of cheap wine to China were so high: importers of fine wine would bury the good stuff behind walls of low-end wine, to avoid alerting customs authorities to what was really being transported.
There is currently a publishing mini-boom going on in books about the rise of China, with works such as Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition and Leta Hong Fincher’s Leftover Women hitting the bestseller lists. Thirsty Dragon is one of the few that looks not only at what’s going on inside China, but at how these changes impacted the wider world.
If I have one criticism, it’s that the book doesn’t make enough concessions to readers who aren’t intimate with the global wine trade and the people who run it. Mustacich has piled on so many facts, labels, chateaux and personalities that the narrative can occasionally get bogged down by them; there are places where the implications of all the goings-on needed to be made much clearer. Likewise, Mustacich sometimes misses the chance to make more of the passing parade; the book is full of dodgy characters just begging for more attention.
For all that, this is a major contribution to wine literature. I can’t think of any books since George M. Taber’s The Judgement of Paris (2006) and Elin McCoy’s The Emperor of Wine (2006) that have dealt with such a pivotal moment in wine in such a thorough and professional way.
Bordeaux-based Mustacich, a former correspondent for this magazine, has worked for NBC and Agence France-Presse. This has given her the ability to combine serious journalism with an insider’s view of Bordeaux.
Although Bordeaux remains central to the world of wine, it is curiously under-reported. Wine writers focus almost exclusively on the rarefied world of the first growths. When they do stray from the first growths, it’s invariably to discuss the impact of Robert Parker. But on the economic realities of the region, there is little written.
Suzanne Mustacich has filled that gap admirably. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how Bordeaux really works – and who wants to understand how China is changing the world of wine.
Thirsty Dragon: China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines by Suzanne Mustacich; Henry Holt; November 2015. This review originally appeared at wine-business-international.com