Drinking wine might be a mainstream activity, but reading about it is definitely niche. I’d wager that perhaps less than 1% wine consumers are likely to pick up a book on the subject, meaning that writing a tome about wine isn’t the easy way to a bestseller.
Occasionally something comes along that clearly has wider appeal. Suzanne Mustacich‘s Thirsty Dragon is just such a book. As the tag line puts it, the premise is “China’s Lust for Bordeaux and the Threat to the World’s Best Wines”, the starting point to document the fast developing market for Bordeaux futures in China over the last decade.
Mustacich could have written a relatively dry account of how Bordeaux’ en primeur system has been distorted by interest from China, but what we get here is considerably more exciting and far-reaching – an exhaustive study of what happens when two bullish trading cultures meet head on for the first time. The story takes us far beyond the interaction between the Bordelais and the Chinese, also covering the rise of China as a wine producing nation and challenges such as counterfeiting, corrupt customs officials and other government shenangigans. This is a book that will fascinate and entertain Asia-watchers, economists and winos alike.
The relevations are sometimes extraordinary, reading about the extent to which China’s meteoric rise as a wine buying and consuming nation threatened to unbalance Bordeaux’s centuries old systems and elite. One has to laugh when reading about how even entrepreneurs like Bernard Magrez, the owner of a string of properties including Château Pape Clément, were ultimately beaten by Chinese business acumen.
Mustacich certainly has the credentials to tackle this subject, having worked for Wine Business International, Agence France Presse and the Chinese periodical Wine Life before taking up her current role as contributing editor at Wine Spectator. Her insider knowledge of both the Bordelais and the Chinese is very evident, with the book written almost exclusively in the third person, couched in the voices of Mustacich’s interviewees.
A short statement preceding the main text gives a clue to how many feathers might have been ruffled in the publication of Thirsty Dragon: “This is a true story, although some names and details have been changed or withheld.” Relatively few of the top châteaux and their owners are mentioned by name, as we learn about “second label” brands that were quietly created for the Chinese market, or all kinds of other shady deals that enabled the Bordelais to satify the Chinese lust for both quantity and exclusivity. Mustacich is to be credited as its very rare indeed to read in such detail about the inner workings of “La Place“, Bordeaux’ extraordinarily self-protective, closed ecosystem of châteaux, négociants and courtiers.
If there is a criticism with the book, it is that the vast array of personalities and detail sometimes threatens to overbalance the narrative thrust. One could not accuse Mustacich of glossing over any detail or angle, however slight. That said, this is a story that is still unfolding, and the book’s conclusion is necessarily open-ended: “China challenges the rules of the game, but the game will still be played.”