Wine Tips: Siebers’ Suggestions

As we all know, wine is a many-flavored beverage. To get the most enjoyment out of our grape friend, I emailed Dan Sieber, a bigwig at Summergate Wines, and asked him for five tips for imbibers. He wrote back with 12, including several specific to China (4, 7, 11 and 12):

“1. Your expectations of what a wine SHOULD taste like are 100 times more powerful than what the ACTUAL wine tastes like. Pour a nice bottle of wine into an empty bottle of bad wine (or vise versa), make some popcorn and enjoy the show. In other words, tasting wine blind (not knowing what the wine is) is the only way to really experience what the wine is like (even with experts this is true). I think that this is the only way to really learn wine (tasting that is, factual knowledge is from books).

“2. Always buy wines from family-owned producers. Huge corporations own most of the most famous wineries in the world. They bought them from the original family owners who made the winery great. The corporation then, to different degrees of speed, bleeds the quality out of the winery until there is nothing left to the brand. These wines are never good over the long term, as the quarterly stock report is god. The corporations buy ratings by purchasing big ads with the influential magazines, and some of the famous critics are directly on the payroll. Robert Parker is the only one I know of who is truly independent (or is the best at hiding it: either way it is just his taste. I don’t listen to him, he just helps by giving a general indication that the wine is good). Family wineries think in terms of generations, so quality is always the most important. Of course, my competition will try to disagree with this, but I have no idea how they could.

“3. No one is a wine expert. There is just WAY too much to know. In many groups of friends, there is one guy who is known as the wine guy. These guys often are the worst spreaders of wine myths (I saw it hundreds of times in restaurants where I was the wine waiter). Never take what others say about wine as truth, only get wine information from books. You would not trust 100 percent the word of a friend for a medical issue; you would listen and then look it up. Wine is the same. Even from me, I am not a wine expert, just a wine geek… that happens to also have a very opinionated personality

“4. When you are in a restaurant and order wine, and the server says, “Sorry, that one is out of stock, try this one” 90 percent of the time they really do have it in stock. They are lying because they get money to sell the one they suggested, and not for the one you ordered, ESPECIALLY if they are recommending a Chinese wine. If they do not follow up with a recommendation after telling you it is out of stock, it probably really is out of stock. If you think that you are being tricked, ask to talk to the owner if you are in a restaurant, or send an email the next day to the food and beverage director if you are in a hotel.

“5. Expensive is not always better. The reward of learning lots about wine is how to get a wine that tastes like 400 USD for 40 USD. That takes a looooong time to learn, and those are not easy to find. It is the big direct benefit from learning wine (besides just feeding the passion for wine). Spending a lot of money on a bottle is only necessary if you don’t know wine – then it can guarantee you some level of quality.

“6. Never believe someone when they say this one is better than that one, only YOU can decide that. If you like Hatsune, but someone tells you that they think Matsuko is better (assuming you have tried Matsuko a few times), would you just believe them and forget your own tastes? Of course not, you would just ignore that person’s remarks, confident that you like Hatusne better. Yes, as you drink your tastes will evolve, but no matter what stage you are at, something good to you just tastes good to you. Don’t worry about others, just be able to understand WHY you think it tastes better than wine B, and think about it. That will start the learning process.

“7. If you like a bottle of wine you are having at a restaurant, friend’s house, etc., turn the bottle around and write down the company name and phone number on the Chinese back label. All importers do home delivery, and at much better prices.

“8. You pay a premium for wines from famous regions of about 25-100 percent over wines of the same quality from lesser-known regions. However, without drinking experience, lesser-known regions can be a risk for quality. They are lesser-known for a reason…

“9. Don’t worry about vintages, focus on producers for quality. Good producers make good wine every year, bad producers make bad wine every year.

“10. Regions can only give you an indication of style, not quality. If you had a wine from XXX region or grape that you really liked, I hope you remember the producer also, because the region/grape doesn’t mean much besides an indication of style. It would be like saying, “I ate at a restaurant in New York and it was good, so all the restaurants in New York must be good.”

“11. Dry wines just don’t MATCH with Chinese food. Please everyone stop trying. It is possible to do it, but in the end the meal no longer resembles anything like a normal Chinese meal (wide selection of dishes, all in the middle for sharing, arriving whenever). Drinking wine with Chinese food is not about pairing, it is about wine survival. Top wine killers: spice (even mild), anything with vinegar (sauce, pickled, etc.), green vegetables, sweetness, bitterness.

“12. Sweet wines are not just for dessert! If you can eat gong pao chicken, then you can have sweet wine with your meal! They are both really sweet. The only wines that have done well (just my opinion) from beginning to end through a Chinese meal are Ports and Sauternes (or other types of thick sweet wines). These wines are the best at wine survival, and can even match well with some dishes. Try a Port with Beijing Duck (easy on the onions and sauce).

6 thoughts on “Wine Tips: Siebers’ Suggestions”

  1. Chinese food’s flavor just seem to be too complex for wine. I love Chinese food, but once in a while I just want a big steak or a hamburger for that simple meaty taste.

    Great blog on Beijing bars! You know more about bars than any local Beijingers I have met.

    Well I guess the true locals just drink a few tsingtaos with their dinner instead of paying 40 kuai for a cocktail.

  2. Thanks for the comments Chubby.

    While I know something about bars in central Beijing, I really need to get out and explore some of the outlying areas – so many bars, so little time.

    As for pairing wine and Chinese food, I know that it’s not easy, but isn’t the fun in the trying!?

    Cheers, BB

  3. For me, I lived near the Tsinghua University area. Sanlitun is just way too far for me. I go to Wudaokou for drinks. “Lush” has great cocktail drinks, but the place are often too packed with students. Any suggestions for places around the Wudaokou area?

  4. 1. Blind tastings are not in my opinion the almighty cure for getting unbiased opinions. Often the situation creates pressures and fears of loosing face, and this makes one go for the wines that are easily recognizeable. I’ve seen the same happen in whisky – it is always a safe bet to give your vote to a smoky Islay whisky, because they are easy to recognize and well respected.

    2. A lot of family.owned wineries also produce crappy wines. Large corps may be in there to bring in money as investment into the family business. I think much of the frech family-opwned wineyards are in trouble precisely due to the lack of quality, and this is often linked with small size and very limited possibilities to invest more into the business.

    3. SomeONE has written the wine books also, so there is a tiny bit of irony in this suggestion – might it be that a WINE EXPERT wrote the book? Then it must be rubbish! ;-) Ok, I see the point here, but please consider that many people do taste and study wines – also from books – and may be able to offer real expertise and advice. Otherwise we would not have sommelier’s…

    4. ,5. and 6. I agree with wholeheartedly. There are those of us who genuinely also like their Lagavulin with coca cola – and if they do, then this may be the best for them. Listen to your mouth.

    7. and 8. No comment.

    9. Oops, but again – each vintage IS classified according to the quality. Each year is different in the weather conditions which directly affect wine quality! It is true that good wine producers may be able to avoid making totally bad wine from a vintage when all went wrong, but certainly the quality is NOT the same as when all the nature’s conditions favoured winemaking. For example with some wines such as Tokaij Aszu, it is simply NOT MADE on some years, for the very reason that the conditions were wrong and the product would be totally inferior rubbish.

    10. true.

    11. Whatever happened to listen to your own taste and liking..? The whole concept of “Chinese food” is so wide in scale and versatile that I would not go as far as to make this statement. And again, some people may like different things..

    12. Let the people decide for themselves…or should they listen to a WINE EXPERT (Gasp!!)?

  5. Thanks Mike,

    Re blind tasting:

    In “Say Grace: Seeking Seven Good Chinese Wines” in my most recent newsletter (, I wrote about a blind tasting of Chinese wines I held at home.

    At that tasting, some of the wines that I voted as the best were not the ones a person might expect if he or she looked at my notes. In other words, in a few cases, I overrode my notes when I voted.

    I would guess that was due, at least in part, to being influenced by the other tasters. So you’re right, there are issues of pressure, face, etc in blind tasting. But having said that, I found the blind tasting – the first one I’ve ever organized – incredibly valuable.

    Next time around I’ll be much more confident in voting. I’ll trust my nose and mouth (and notes) more. True, some people may picks wines in order to play safe, etc. but as a novice, blind tasting seems the best way to develop my wine-tasting skills. Plus it’s fun!

    Cheers, Boyce

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