Believing the worst about wine

Richard takes a sardonic look at wine’s (mis)fortunes in Asia and elsewhere

If, like me, you’re a horse, then I’m afraid it’s going to be a bad year. Our only crime was to be born in 1978 (or 1942, 1954, 1966, 1990, 2002 or 2014), but that is amply sufficient to be doomed in the year of the rat (the simple explanation being that the rat is directly opposite the horse in the zodiac wheel). Our only hope is to boost good luck by wearing red, using essential oils and doing community service (according to this account, at least).

Chinese zodiac showing rat and horse

You might dismiss such beliefs as hokey superstition, but across Asia horoscopes and the zodiac are taken quite seriously. As part of the recent lunar new year festivities, for instance, Singapore echoed to the sounds of drummers visiting every building in the city, from executive boardrooms to KFC, blessing them with attendant dragons, as seen below (in the corridor outside the offices of 67 Pall Mall). Meanwhile at lohei ceremonies, communal salads were prepared and then ceremonially tossed en masse while calling out positive wishes such as prosperity, health and good wine for the year. Really.

As is so often the case with human affairs, the cold, hard facts of the matter are less important than the warm, fluffy perception of those facts. Nowhere is this demonstrated more baldly than in the current political arena, where success no longer depends on truth but on what people believe to be true. This is also inevitably the case with something as subjective as wine.

In the first six dispatches of this column, I have attempted to paint a largely cheery picture of wine’s prospects in Asia. As an optimistic horse, I am naturally inclined to look for the best in things, and as a new and enthusiastic émigré to Singapore I have a vested interest in doing so.

But seeing as this year is predestined to be unlucky for me, I may as well succumb to my fate and look into everything that’s negative about wine in Asia. Let me look a gift horse in the mouth and become a neigh-sayer.

Doom-mongering and gloom-mongering

First on the agenda is the crumbling economic foundations of the region. There’s recession in India, contraction in China, stasis in riot-stricken Hong Kong and now the coronavirus is threatening to cripple business completely. For the wine industry, such pessimistic prospects leave bars and restaurants empty, squeezing the already paltry margins of the trade to the point of asphyxiation.

The richest Asian consumers have such vast wealth that they are insulated from mere fripperies such as global economic downturn, but the majority of them couldn’t really care less about wine. At millionaire’s dinners from Mumbai to Macau, conspicuous consumers prefer the more overt ostentation of whisky to even the finest and rarest burgundies. Besides, wine is too easily lost amid the banquet of food, downed in one by an audience who care more about brands than terroir.

For the remaining casual drinkers who still want a glass of wine in Asia, good luck. Firstly, prices are tooth-pullingly unaffordable in most Asian countries: double or triple what they would cost in the UK or US. Besides, a by-the-glass selection is virtually unheard of. Most restaurants offer a choice of two: red or white, invariably low-quality Australian brands. Specialist wine bars are scarcely any better.

The range by the bottle might look more tempting, but with inappropriate storage and transport conditions, not to mention the abundance of fakes, as well as a hotchpotch of dying vintages that have lurked on shelves for years past their best, buying wine in Asia is a perpetual gamble.

Within the trade, the mutterings are similarly cynical. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve heard of four wine professionals, some of whom are at the very top of their profession, who have left ostensibly prestigious jobs that they started here in Singapore only 12 months ago, and in some cases less than a third that long. The only logical conclusion is that they were all born in a year of the horse.

What’s the reality?

Of course, most of the above is entirely open to interpretation, and that is exactly my point. I could just as easily write a defeatist account of wine in the UK (Brexit disaster, loss-making merchants, neo-prohibitionist uprising) or the US (tariff apocalypse, cannabis competitors, Trumpian volatility).

To a large extent you can choose whichever reality you prefer, as demonstrated by how binary and uncompromising people’s attitudes have become on all matters these days [Michael E McIintyre's dichotomisation, as described in in Greenhouse gases and climate change – JR]. Wine in Asia is, by many measures, a profitable, diverse and lively sector that is bringing joy to new corners of the world – and that’s what I choose to believe.

At the same time, I can acknowledge the challenges facing wine all around the globe. After all, if wine teaches us anything, it is that nothing is ever simple. Like wine, reality is a nuanced and complex thing, something to provoke debate rather than dogma, and above all something that should evoke optimism and positivity, despite all the difficulties – and regardless of which zodiac sign you are saddled with.

A novelty horse-shaped wine holder