Sunday, December 01, 2019

A late-night dispatch from a tired and wary Italian wine export agent in China

[ Imagine a scenario where Italian wine exporters, winemakers and their agents make their twice (or thrice) yearly pilgrimage to China in search of trade and success. And imagine, if you will, one of those agents sending a note in the middle of the night. It has happened many times, and as such, this one emanated from one of those cold, dark, lonely rooms, overlooking a pop-up city of millions in the middle of the night.]


Dear A,

It’s 3 A.M. and I got into my room two hours ago. I’m writing to you because it’s afternoon where you are, and back home in Italy people have sat down to their Sunday dinner. They have other, more important things on their mind than my travails in the Middle Kingdom.

I’ve just come in from another wine banquet, this time in Zhengzhou. Course after course, some recognizable, some as foreign as the Chinese characters on the signs. And wine, Italian wine. Multiple vintages of this wine or that wine. In my case, it is our Brunello, which goes back many years. How our hosts found the 1955, I’ll never know. We don’t even have it in our cave back home. But that seems to be the way it is in China. One can find things seemingly lost to history. On the other hand, one can find that here the past is shunned, forever lost. At least the truth of history. But that’s what it must be like when you live under the rule of a leader who had himself voted ruler for life. God, what I’d give to have a plate of spaghetti con peperoncino aglio olio right now, to settle my stomach and to rid my palate from the taste of smoked duck and soy.


Back home in Italy, the owners of the winery want me to spend more time in China. “It’s so vast, there are unlimited possibilities for our label,” they say. They rarely leave their little world around Montalcino, barely go to Florence. Yet, they dream of a larger world outside their bubble. So, they send me, their very own Marco Polo, to “make friends with the Orientals.”

I’ve been there a dozen times now. Cites with names like Guangzhou (population 44 million), Shanghai (population 36 million), Chongqing (population 25 million), Beijing (population 23 million), Hangzhou (population 21 million). And then to the 2nd tier cites, Zhengzhou (with only 10 million) Nanjing (with 8 million), Xuzhou a city that has barely nine million people. And yes, Hong Kong (a measly 7.5 million). They are all islands on this sea of land mass with a never-ending tsunami of population. Two billion souls, and I can feel their intelligence, their cunning and their ruthlessness. Every one of them.

Two weeks in China can seem like a life sentence to an Italian like me. No Facebook, no You Tube, no outside influences. Big Brother has seen to that. From an endless procession of hotel rooms, they peer out from the clock or the smoke detector above me, courtesy of “The leader for life.” But whose life? And what kind of quality of life? And here I am, at 3 A.M. pondering a life, one which my employer wishes to use to conquer China with his Brunello. It’s Pirandello blended with Machiavelli and throw in a dash of Grazia Deledda. And that is my dilemma as I look out a window I have looked out upon dozens of times in a dozen cities and not seen anything that would comfort me. No ancient basilica, no recognizable river, not a car or a building, or a sign, that will ease the cold loneliness that creeps into my bones when I am so far from home. Oh, how I long to go to America (even Canada with all that snow right now), if I cannot just go home, to find something that gives me consolation from this lonely road trip that lasts a lifetime.

And really, while they loved the wines, and even me, next week it will be a producer from Etna, the week after it will be a famous writer, and they will love them too. And they will bring out their mushrooms and their prawns and their abundance – first to impress and ultimately to suppress. For their plan isn’t to build my brand, it is to take it over. Two billion people and counting. Against a country of 70 million and with a dwindling population at that? We’re heading into the dustbin of history while our churches and old buildings will remain for a time longer, as monuments and artifacts of a once mighty culture. But with this new China, which has been around even longer than Rome, and with hordes of people crawling around the planet buying everything, soon the tables will be switched. Oh, how I wish my employer had just stopped in America and not gone on to Asia. I would willingly (and occasionally) eat the junk food under the golden arches to spare me this experiment.

No, after a dozen or so trips to China I am not convinced this is the right place for Italy to expend the energy to build their brands for wine. I think in 100 years, at most, this experiment will only be a vague notion. Italian wine will just be another revolution to be suppressed and vanquished, like so many revolutions that have been consigned to the scrap-heap of history here in Asia.

I know you’ve been critical of the long-term prospects for Italian wine in China. Maybe you should come here and see for yourself? I’d love to know what you see and feel and find.

Warmest personal regards,

-F












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