If the recent China Wine Guide by Time Out magazine were a glass of vino, I would describe it as exhibiting typical aromas, possessing a light body, and leaving a bad taste.
I found a copy of the 100-page guide in this month’s issue of Beijing Time Out, available for free in bars, restaurants, and other venues about town.
The wine guide has three sections. The first is “wine for beginners“, which explains how to open a wine bottle, common wine myths, and wine terminology, among other topics.
The second is “a consumer’s guide“, with information about distributors, storing wine, buying accessories*, and so on.
Despite its name, The China Wine Guide is light on China context. It covers topics such as Shanghai and Beijing wine bars and pairing Chinese food with wine, but could have gone much farther. For example, some of the space spent on a lengthy look at Bordeaux wine would have been better used to explain the scene in China, such as wine availability (in gourmet shops, supermarkets, and hypermarkets), counterfeits, tasting events, and so on.
Long story short: more local content would improve the guide.
In any case, these first two sections have a good deal of useful material, especially for newcomers to wine, and are published in both English and Chinese.
Too bad the guide didn’t end there.
Instead, it has a third section that includes the results of a tasting panel organized in Shanghai for the guide. The panel used a “double blind” system and “the [five] judges never saw a bottle of wine during the judging process,” states the guide. Fair enough.
Unfortunately, a fair system only goes so far, especially given the context of this guide.
We are told that a “call for submissions” went “to all wine distributors in China” and that the panel tasted wines from eight of these distributors (note: each distributor represents different brands, thus the source of the competition).
The vast majority of distributors, ranging from major players to smaller outfits, did not participate. For those companies that did participate, we are not told how many wines each provided, which hinders meaningful interpretation of the results.
Then there’s ASC, generally considered the top distributor. Two wines it represents are listed among the guide’s 55 “top wines”. However, according to the company, “ASC declined to submit wines for the tasting.” Given this, how were its wines included? I posed this question to Time Out, but have received no response.
But, why would anyone be wary of participating?
Here’s one reason: The Time Out China Wine Guide is “in association” with one distributor, Summergate Fine Wines & Spirits. The Summergate logo is on the guide’s cover and all but four of its pages. It is the only wine distributor with ads in the guide. Its portfolio director was on the tasting panel along with the wine guide editor of Time Out.
It doesn’t take a public relations degree to realize that a magazine, particularly one with the global reputation of Time Out, providing a single company with such exclusivity and access in a project that involves judging that company’s competitors is bound to raise eyebrows. Fair or not, this perception isn’t improved by the fact that Summergate came out on top in the tasting (see below).
According to ASC, “We didn’t participate because the judging panel did not represent a broad enough strata of wine distributors in China.”
Another distributor, which did participate, was unsatisfied with the end product. “Had we known that the guide would be ‘in association’ with Summergate, as mentioned on the front label, we would have never participated,” according to Jebsen. Which raises the question of why Time Out didn’t seek an alternative to doing the guide “in association” with one distributor. As Jebsen stated, “No one asked us to advertise.”
Add in the small number of distributors involved and the lack of information about how many wines each company provided, and it is quite a reach for the guide to claim it lists “the top wines available for drinking in 2008.”
I find this situation unfortunate for Time Out, for the non-affiliated panelists, and, especially, for consumers.
* The guide lists Riedel, Eisch, and Schot Zwiesel as wine glass options. For something more affordable, try these 10-kuai glasses. I like the tip about asking for a free corkscrew when you’re buying wine from a distributor.
Tasting panel results
Below is a list of distributors included in the “top wines” section. The first number indicates how many of the distributor’s wines are listed. The number in brackets indicates how many of its wines ranked first in the four categories – value wines, red wines, white wines and dessert wines. Based on this, over 70 percent of the “top wines” in China hail from only three distributors.
Summergate – 17 (2)
Torres – 15 (1)
Palette – 8 (1)
Jebsen – 5
Pernod Ricard – 3
Gelipu – 3
ASC – 2
Ruby Red – 1
Wine World – 1