Corks vs. screw tops, Bali wine, and Santa Claus: Just another Friday night with Frank

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By Jim Boyce

I’ve spent a great deal of time drinking and thinking about wine this past year and have emerged with mixed opinions, but happily I just got an email from regular commentator 8 Songs that reminded me why I like both wine and the Friday night with Frank tastings in Beijing. There aren’t many places where you can have an impromptu cork versus screw top contest, try an Indonesian wine, and experience excellent comradery all in one night. So, here is 8 Songs’ take on just such an occasion, though he seems to have left out the parts about dancing on chairs and a regular dressing up as Santa Claus (yes, I have my sources).

“The Friday night wine tasting at Sequoia Café last Friday night yielded an unexpected and enlightening opportunity to pit screw top against cork.

“It came about because the evening was a “bring your own bottle” night. Amongst the treasures from the 14 who attended were two bottles of Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. One was under cork, the other had a screw top.

“A more diligent reporter would have gone to Penfolds to check the logic for why one of their premium wines should have two different closures….

“We did check the provenance of the two bottles before us. One came from the duty free store at Sydney Airport two months ago, while the other was lifted from a private collection in Melbourne.

“Our host Frank Siegel suggested we do a taste-off and supplied us with a second glass.

“The two wines were like chalk and cheddar, tea and turnips, or Pavarotti and punk – whichever imagery works for you.

“Though both had a deep purple, almost black appearance in the glass, one introduced itself with a full aroma suggesting a fine balance between fruit and tannin. The other had a fruit aroma but without the complexity. In the mouth, the first caressed our taste buds with an explosion of flavour at the start, a complex structure and a long slow finish with a hint of acid that suggested it could have stayed in the cellar another couple of years. The other was an ordinary wine with no complexity and barely any resemblance to its brother. (Or is it sister?)

“I need to reveal a few qualifications on this.

“- We had already “tasted” about a dozen wines before these two. I saw no one spit their taste at any time during the evening.

” – We had fresh glasses for the screw-top wine, but for the cork we used our same glasses as for the previous 10 or so bottles.

” – We did not give the two bottles any airing time. They were cracked and poured. Some time in a carafe may have helped the second wine.

” – Yours truly brought one of the two 407s.

“So which was which? We had 14 tasters, some with palates still maturing, others with quite advanced technical skills. But the verdict was unanimous – the wine under cork had aged magnificently and had developed into a great wine. The wine under aluminium had not done a thing in its three or four years in the bottle. It was truly stuck in a time warp.

“The group lamented that we had neither Jim Boyce [Thanks for the plug! - Ed.] nor Beijing’s ambassador for cork Ricardo Duarte there that night.

“By the way, we had another surprise that evening. A bottle of Indonesian white wine was offered for tasting. Called Aga White and from the highlands of Bali, the label urged us not to cellar this wine. But it was fine – a slight apple/citrus taste but well built and would be perfect on a long slow Sunday afternoon on Kuta Beach ["Is this a motion for a field trip?" - Ed.].

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More on corks and screw tops:
Screw it? A video conference with Wolf Blass and George Samios
Cork it? An interview with Amorim’s Carlos de Jesus
The fault with no name: Frankie Zhao on corked wine in China

Top five all-time Beijing live music venues: Kaiser Kuo

Besides being a writer, single malt aficionado, and bigwig at a PR firm, Kaiser Kuo has been rocking in Beijing for a over a decade, whether with Tang Dynasty starting in the 1990s, with AC/DC tribute band Dirty Deeds, or with current project Spring and Autumn (Chunqui). Here are his top five all-time Beijing live music venues. (Note: I’ll soon have a post on the top five current live music venues).

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1) Keep in Touch: The biggest myth about the old Keep in Touch, which was across the street from the Kempinski Hotel and was in business between 1998 and 2001, was that it was owned by ex-Cui Jian keyboardist Wang Yong. To set the record straight the owners were Wang Yong’s (late) sister Wang Ling and her then-boyfriend Liang Jun in 1997, and as far as I know it never officially changed ownership, though Wang Yong certainly behaved as though it were his. Between its opening and closing, there weren’t really many other decent venues. KIT had a good sound system for its day, and acts like Overload, Cobra, Zhang Chu, Underbaby, Brain Failure, Again, Iron Kite, and Tang Dynasty used to play there quite regularly. The motorcycle Tang Dynasty’s first bassist Zhang Ju died riding formed a morbid but central piece of the bar’s decor. (Photo: Yiren)

2) Rhine River Sound Stage: The Sound Stage was the heir to Keep in Touch. It was jointly opened by Wang Yong and Tang Dynasty’s then-manager Sun Hao during the waning days of KIT’s glory. Located off of Xueyuan Lu just north of the Beijing Film Academy, Sound Stage inherited much of the gear and pretty much the same crowd of rock aficionados that Keep in Touch had. Things went downhill for the club after May 11, 2001, when the annual tribute concert to Zhang Ju (held at Sound Stage in 2000 as well) was shut down by the authorities after a crowd of roughly three times the club’s capacity showed up. Live shows were stopped soon afterward, and the bar closed some months later.

3) (Old) Get Lucky: Located in a nasty ghetto called Taiyanggong, south of the University of International Business and Economics, Beijing, the owner of the Get Lucky must have had some serious connect: Over the years, every business around his was flattened, and it became easier and easier to find his weird ramshackle club, vaguely Old West-themed bar. Its exterior was gaudily festooned in neon, which I thought was appropriate: Friends of mine and I fondly referred to the place as “the rock ‘n’ roll bordello,” because down a hall on the side of the bar away from the stage were these sleazy karaoke rooms full of sportin’ girls, who’d come tottering out on stiletto heels to check out the bands when things were really rocking. Between 2000 and 2005, when the New Get Lucky on Lady’s Street started taking over most of the live shows, just about every band — whether punk, metal, or whatever genre of rock — played at this place. It’s where Beijing learned how to mosh.

4) (New) Yugong Yishan: The old Yugong Yishan by Chunxiu Lu west of Sanlitun was an okay place to gig from 2005 to 2006 or so, but the new place gets it just right: A great cross-section crowd where Beijingers and expats can all come to enjoy a huge range of genres of live music. I’m not absolutely crazy about the sound system — it’s better at places like Mao — but the atmosphere, the location (in the old Duan Qirui government offices), the size of the place, and the feel of the stage all make it about my favorite place to gig in Beijing today.

5) Star Live: I know there are lots of people who wouldn’t agree that this place belongs on any list of best venues. The sound system can be truly awful in the wrong hands, and ticket prices sometimes keep the real rockers away. But if you have the right sound guy and don’t set your prices too high, you can really get the crowd rocking here. This is the only live house in Beijing that’s big enough to draw a really big audience and one of the few places with a stage big enough to really move around on.

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Ladies week: Seven nights of free drinks in Beijing

Question: Is it possible for women to drink free every night this week?

Answer: Yes.

Though “ladies nights” are typically a mid-week phenomenon in Beijing, the highly competitive post-Olympic bar and club scene is seeing them pop up even on Fridays and Saturdays. This makes it possible for the fairer sex to enjoy free beverages every day this week, though it might require one or more of the following: wearing a “sexy skirt”, dressing like a bunny, belting out a few love songs, and/or coughing up a minor entry fee.

Here is the prospective lineup:

Monday
TUN: Free cocktails from 8-11 PM (free Tsingtao for men, 8-8:30)

Tuesday
Kro’s Nest: First keg of beer free at 6 PM (applies for men)
Frank’s Place: First cocktail free for ladies in “The Cave” wine bar.

Wednesday
Suzie Wong, Zeta, Block 8, China Doll 3.3, and (if you dress like a bunny) Bling: Free drinks

Thursday
Song: Free drinks

Friday
TUN: Free cocktails from 9 PM-midnight

Saturday
Zeta: “Free bubbly to all ladies in sexy skirts”

Sunday
Lush: Perform for 15 minutes at “open mic” night and get a free beer (though there is a RMB10 entry fee).

Even in these hard times, it is still possible to get free hard liquor, as well as bubbly and beer. And if anyone knows of other deals out there, please post them in the comments section.

But think of all the money you saved!*

* This photo is just a reminder that just because the booze is free doesn’t mean your body should pay the price. Know thy limit and ye shall live to drink another day.

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The moose is loose: Jagermeister fem-bots, Monkey Shoulder whisky, and more

The moose is loose (or is it a reindeer?).

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I keep hearing about hard times in the bar scene. I keep seeing plenty of people out and about. What gives? No doubt, the economic crisis is leading some to tighten their belts, but even if times were good, the scene would still have overcapacity – especially at the high end – due to the enduring impact of all those pre-Olympic bar, club, and restaurant openings. Too many places and too few customers: It is a situation that tried and true places will survive, but some of the new ones will not. Here are four spots with decent crowds last night.

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TUN
After Bad Apples rocked the joint, a team of orange- and black-clad Jagermeister fem-bots and their Jager-moose mascot performed around 1 AM for about 50 patrons. Things started with something akin to a disjointed conga line twice circling the bar, shifted into bar top writhing to a peppy version of Billie Jean, and ended with four provocatively dressed dancers putting the closed ends of test tubes shots between their lips and tilting the contents into the mouths of patrons.

(Being the academic type, I carefully noted that employment at Jagermeister seems closely related to leg length. Given my skill with tape measures and calipers, I see hope for further research. Just saying…)

What I expected to be a farce turned out to be fun for most, save a female friend who wanted her shot from the mascot’s mouth. “I’ll only drink one if the moose gives it to me,” said she.

Expect a repeat performance at midnight tonight to cap off ladies night.

By the way, Bad Apples expects to go into the studio in January for its first album.

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Glen
I stopped in to chat with whiskey bar owner Wilfred Kwok, who gave me a taste of the recently arrived Monkey Shoulder, a blend of three Speyside single malts. (This whiskey gets its name from an upper arm injury once common among malt makers.) Expect some caramel, ripe apple, spice, and a very long finish. I’ll soon have a longer write-up on Glen, which Kwok says now has about 150 whiskeys priced from RMB40 to RMB420, but suffice it to say I found the place comfortable, with four groups – including a large one – providing a nice hum of background noise.

Note: There is a RMB30 sit down fee at Glen, but this is waived for first-time visitors (just mention it to the bar staff).

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Beer Mania
I pass by this bar regularly and often see a good crowd through the window. Last night was no exception, with plenty of patrons sucking down Belgium and other beers.

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Q Bar
I stopped for what I thought would be a fairly quiet drink, but instead found a sizable and fairly raucous crowd, two deep or more at the bar. This is one of those tried and true places I mentioned above, though I would love to see a few of their staple cocktails – the classic, dirty, and lychees martinis, for example – at an economic crisis-friendly RMB50. Even so, this place continues to make consistently good drinks.

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Foxy grapey: Chinese wines from Yunnan, Ningxia, Hebei

By Jim Boyce

On Monday night, I tried three Chinese wines at Duck de Chine with a group of beverage researchers that included visiting Aussie wine critic Jeremy Oliver and fellow Grape Wall contributors Nicolas Carre, Frankie Zhao, and John Gai. Here is the lineup and the results.

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Yunnan Crystal Dry White 2002 (Yunnan / ~RMB30 if memory serves)
Made with a grape variety brought to south-central China by missionaries in the nineteenth century, this wine tends to elicit extreme reactions:

  • Oliver grimaced with his first sniff, called it “foxy“, then refined his evaluation to “boiled pineapple lolly with stale dank old flowers.” A few additional micro sniffs confirmed that he did not like this one.
  • Zhao found it both foxy and clean. In other words, he didn’t consider it his cup of tea glass of wine, but thought it properly made.
  • Carre, who has tried it once before, described it as having some interesting aromas, but ultimately reminding him of a plum wine.
  • I found ample tropical aromas (especially pineapple) and the body surprisingly fruitier than the younger vintages I have tried, though the body and finish were too light. Even so, I could easily drink a glass of this and think this wine ranks among the most intriguing in China.

Note: Oliver suggested this grape does not hail from the species Vitis vinifera that is used for most wine and I later checked on this with Ma Huiqin, professor at China Agricultural University, who said it is a hybrid. Along these lines, he said it smelled like jelly made from Concord grapes. True, that’s one thing about it that interests me!

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Xi Xia Chardonnay 2002 (Ningxia / ~ RMB30)
This wine is served at French restaurant Maxim’s of Paris (Solana branch), where Carre is manager, but unfortunately my supermarket bottle turned out to be corked. In any case, Carre says this wine typically features pear, white flower, and citrus aromas, and is what he calls “fresh” (dry and fruity), though the finish is quite short. I thought I smelled some tart apple when I previously tried this wine.

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Sino-French Chardonnay 2004* (Hebei / sample)
This one hailed from Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard, a nonprofit research outfit just outside Beijing. Unanimous agreement that this is a well-made wine, with Gai giving a positive nod, Carre saying he found white flower and “white fruit” (peach and apricot) aromas, and a few people picking up vanilla. The finish is superior to the Ningxia and Yunnan wines and I would put this on par with the Chardonnay produced by Grace Vineyard. Unfortunately, as Sino-French is noncommercial, this wine is not for sale. Go figure…

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* I’m not sure of the year, but Zhao has tried Sino-French wines many times and pegged it as 2004.

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