Competition – Charles Xu


Charles Xu writes, ‘I grew up in Shanghai, and came to study in the U.S. in 1990. I started as an electrical engineer after college and graduate school, designing semiconductor chips for eight years. I then went to business school and became an investment banker, focusing on mergers and acquisitions and IPOs of technology companies. My wife and I found our home in Chicago, moved to Hong Kong for six years, and came back to Chicago after I left investment banking after eight years. I am currently the CFO of a facial recognition software startup. My wife and I will be in London in the last week of September, attending Experience Alpha at Holy Trinity Brompton Church; and then off to Paris for a couple of days, celebrating our 23rd anniversary at Taillevent. Look out!’ His (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition follows. 

My love affair with wine started in the early 1990’s at a small Italian restaurant in downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana. A glass of red, whose name I perhaps didn’t know in the first place, seemed to have made the food more delicious, the conversation more scintillating and the night more memorable.

Then the browsing began, in wine stores and on the Internet, any chance that I had. One day in a small liquor store in Evanston, Illinois, I saw a 1995 Les Remparts de Ferriere for $10.95. At the time, I didn’t know it was a second wine of a classified growth; only vaguely remembered that Margaux was a prestigious name in Bordeaux, and the price couldn’t be beat! When I was paying for it, an epiphany came to me – why don’t I start collecting wines of 1995 vintage? I had recently married my good friend from high school: a cerebral, artistic and beautiful girl whom I thought I had no chance for. Being a hopeless romantic, I wanted to see what other miracles happened in the world in 1995; and this would also symbolize our marriage – it gets better and more precious with time!

To collect, I started to read. The first wine book that I bought was Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine. I read ferociously, and I wanted more – Robert Parker’s Bordeaux, Stephan Reinhardt’s The Finest Wines of Germany, Jasper Morris’ Inside Burgundy, Remington Norman’s The Great Domains of Burgundy (an autographed copy – the surprise of eBay), Allen Meadow’s The Pearl of the Cote, Richard Olney’s Yquem (in French – the peril of eBay), and my favorite reference book: Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas of Wine. Less serious but equally fascinating readings included Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Lawrence Osborne’s The Accidental Connoisseur, Alice Feiring’s The Battle for Wine and Love, and Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route. Never having much interest in reading, I have probably fulfilled my wife’s reading requirement for me with wine books.

Book is not the only medium that I learn about wine. As the Internet grew, I found which captured my attention for hours on end, where I could learn so much from fellow wine enthusiasts’ posts from all angles. It led me to seek out and watch documentaries such as Somm, Sour Grapes, and Jonathan Nossiter’s seminal Mondovino.

Collecting allowed me to meet more people, first in neighborhood wine shops, then in wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma, and lately in remote or even online wine shops – Peter Mesrobian at Flickinger Wines, Michael Davis at Hart Davis Hart, Howard Silverman at Howard’s Wine Cellar, and Don St. Pierre and Zhehao Zhang at Vinfolio. No matter the background and personality, they share a common passion for wine.

My taste evolved during the twenty years of collecting, from Bordeaux to California, Italy, Germany, Austria, and finally Burgundy which seems to provide the ultimate pleasure as well as the intellectual challenge. I have also gone beyond 1995 to 2005 (my daughter’s birth year), 2015 (my startup’s founding year) and other vintages. Recently, it has come full circle when I came across a 1995 Chateau Ferriere! A side-by-side tasting of 1995 Chateau Ferriere’s first and second wine is in the offing. I hope that they won’t taste like vinegar; but even if they do, so what? I also added 1995 Haut Brion, the last first-growth I didn’t have although I am still ambivalent as it was sourced from Acker Merrall & Condit. My 1995’s have exceeded 50 bottles and my small collection totals above 400, which presents a problem that I didn’t have before.

My wife was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer four years ago. After an extensive self-guided research and soul-searching, she eschewed chemo and radiation therapies and converted to a whole food plant-based diet which discourages the consumption of alcohol. She is cancer-free and healthy now. But who will drink those 1995’s with me? I began to share my collection with friends, family and even clerks at my wine storage. Last year, we celebrated our 22 nd anniversary at Paul Virant’s excellent restaurant Vie in Western Springs, a suburb of Chicago. We brought a bottle of wine to a restaurant for the first time – a 1995 Bollinger Grande Annee that we shared with our waiter and the chef for the preparation of a special vegan tasting menu. Champagne had never tasted so intense and so refined! I also shared a bottle of 1995 Yquem with my startup partners last year, one commented to me the other day that he could still taste the caramel in his mouth! It doesn’t matter how many fruit notes I can find in a wine, I am looking for harmony, character, and the company I can share it with.

During my wife’s fight with cancer, we found faith. We are especially grateful as we grew up in a totalitarian and atheist society. When sharing with our bible study group a bottle of natural wine Bloomer Creek’s 2014 Tanzen Dame Riesling which I bought at the winery on our road trip last summer, it dawned on me that drinking wine doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure – as long as we are grateful for the God-given bounty, for the love and labor that farmers, winemakers and others in the wine trade put into it, for the means to acquire it, and for the company that we have. In an increasingly secular world with explosive and distractive technology, please put down that iPhone, sit back and enjoy an old-fashioned wine with family, friends and even strangers, and be grateful. With God, family, friends and wine, what else can you ask for?