Enthusiast's Corner July 2006

The case of the missing American wine.


Published:

Flying over the magnificent Hong Kong harbor, you can almost feel the industrial might of China. Here in this mysterious, East-meets-West city, spectacular new hotels are springing up, from magnificent edifices like the dazzling mirrored-glass Four Seasons to a shining Mandarin Oriental, whose arches leap above the horizon. They join the multitude of towers that make up this incredible skyline where the power of trade is omnipresent.

Dynamic restaurants with world-renowned chefs are located in these luxury hotels and throughout the city. I had the pleasure of frequenting many of them during a recent 9-day visit. What I found is that fine wine is a strong object of desire among this city's well-heeled residents and visitors. Restaurants' wine cellars are deep with investment-grade wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne—as well as many bottlings from Australia. Yet American wines were virtually nowhere to be found. From the top-flight restaurants in elite hotels to the local eateries and independents, American wine has gone missing.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, Hong Kong's is a new wine culture, and as often happens, its consumers lack confidence. That means they depend on critics for purchase decisions, and because Hong Kong was a British colony for so much of its history, it is British critics they turn to. And British critics do love their French wines. In such an environment, name brands are important, and the top American wines, by the time they're shipped, taxed, and on the restaurant menus and in the wine shops, are very expensive—yes, even when compared to Bordeaux's first growths.

As for Australia, Asia is virtually a domestic market for the Aussies. They market aggressively, and have managed to wrest some favorable trade agreements. Americans have made relatively little effort to penetrate the Asian market.

The Hong Kong market is critically important for the long-term future of American wine exports, because it is considered the gateway to China, which is, of course, a potential gold mine. Next time I visit, I hope to find a stronger U.S wine presence in Asia. (In our next issue, we are presenting a major feature on India, and its growing wine culture. I visited India recently, and I look forward to sharing some of my impressions.)

Closer to home, in this issue, Steve Heimoff takes a look at the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys near San Luis Obispo on California's Central Coast. The names of these cool-climate AVAs don't exactly leap at you like Napa or Sonoma, but the winemakers there are convinced they are part of a major pendulum swing in American winemaking: They believe that the age of the blockbuster wine (huge fruit, high alcohol, inky and dense) is over and that Americans are looking for more refined, leaner wines.

Monica Larner loves Sicily. She has been there many times over the years, and her enthusiasm is manifest in "The Wine Roads of Sicily", as is her deep knowledge of the wineries, restaurants, hotels and magnificent historical sites. In the article, Larner maps out three great routes to travel that will expose the traveler to the best Sicily has to offer, using great wine as the anchor. It's a much-needed article, because the country's own tourist bureaus have yet to produce the kinds of materials that tourists have come to expect—detailed maps, itineraries, promotional materials and travel packages.

Stephen Beaumont also hit the road to present our cover story on barbecue. Beaumont has visited America's classic barbecue capitals in Texas, Kansas City, Tennessee and the Carolinas in order to discern the differences between the classic sauces and rubs.

Our July issue is the perfect one to celebrate American vodkas, and Paul Pacult does just that in our Proof Positive article. Quality vodka is classically associated with Russia, but American distillers are crafting wonderful vodkas to rival some of the best from Eastern Europe.

Though you may be reading this issue closer to Bastille Day than the Fourth of July, I'll take this occasion to say Happy Fourth, and to assert that, whether it's crafting world-class vodkas, marketing to Asia or keeping the world safe for democracy, Americans are determined, resourceful and committed to success.

Cheers!

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