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Chinese Wine Goes Down Slowly
Qingdao, China
By Hannah Beech Qingdao

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Shao xuedong can sniff out a good vintage—even if it's mixed with a dash of Sprite. Unlike the average Chinese tippler, though, the Qingdao vintner doesn't take his wine diluted with soft drinks. Instead, Shao and his colleagues at the Huadong winery in fertile Shandong province are aiming for a doubly difficult task: creating a top-notch Chinese wine and training the public to appreciate it.

Wine-drinking got a big boost in 1996 when then-Premier Li Peng decreed that state banquets should be lubricated with wine instead of baijiu, a potent grain alcohol consumed in rapid-fire shots. Despite the official approval, however, most cadres complained that anything but the sweetest wines tasted spoiled or vinegary. Their solution? To dump sugar or Sprite in the offending liquid to mellow the bitter tannins.

To be fair, the bottles uncorked at state banquets haven't exactly been grands crus. Dynasty and Great Wall, two of the most popular brands, taste as if they are designed for college drinkathons. Other offerings, like Luminous Cup or Shenzhen Wang's, are equally uninspiring. Huadong, on the other hand, displays good breeding: last year, the 15-year-old winery was the sole Chinese representative at the Vinexpo in Bordeaux. French vintners, recalls Shao, couldn't believe that a Chinese offering was actually palatable.

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Praise from the French Elite doesn't count much with Chinese drinkers. Though Huadong production has increased tenfold to 200,000 cases in the past decade, most Chinese still prefer beer over Bordeaux. Much of that attitude is a matter of price. A 1998 Huadong chardonnay is priced at $13, while the average monthly wage in rural Shandong is little more than $20. Says Liu Dongwen, a 32-year-old employee at Huadong's bottling plant: "I'd rather save up for a TV."

Shao hopes to market his boutique wine as a luxury product like cognac. "People think that if the price is high, it must be good," he says. "Then after they buy it, they can slowly learn to enjoy our wine." Not that slowly is the way Shao consumes his drink. "Bottoms up," he announces during lunch, as he drains a glass of reserve Riesling. Even with years of viticultural training, some habits die hard.

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