There is a general rule these days when it comes to books about China — if it has “dragon” in the title it is probably hastily written by someone trying to get on the China bandwagon and not worth reading.
This book is an exception to that rule.
Journalist Suzanne Mustacich’s deep research and numerous interviews allow her to provide a fascinating account of how China’s ever-growing influence has wreaked havoc on a faraway corner of the world.
That corner is the famous French wine-producing region of Bordeaux, where Mustacich lives. She clearly has excellent connections there and an acute understanding of the region’s history and tradition, as well as the upheavals that have come with the flood of Chinese demand for high-end wine and investment in the region.
From a China-watcher’s perspective, this book provides wonderful new examples of how the world’s most populous country is influencing communities and markets all over the world.
For those more interested in learning about wine, Mustacich provides a fascinating explanation of the 800-year-old traditions and hugely complicated structure of the Bordeaux wine market.
As money flows out of China at a rapidly increasing rate, Bordeaux’s experience with the hungrily acquisitive Chinese nouveaux riches provides a cautionary tale to those parts of the world — New York, London, Sydney — that are now being affected in a similar way.
Descriptions of growing pains in the fledgling domestic Chinese wine industry will also be fresh but familiar for old China hands and a great eye-opener for the general reader.
Just one of the fascinating revelations is the fact that China’s earliest wine joint ventures made use of slave labour from its brutal gulag system.
Accounts of ambitious and rapacious Communist party officials with dreams of building 1,000 French-style châteaux in the desert of northwestern China also provide a wonderful illustration of the problems afflicting the wider Chinese economy.
From the wilds of China’s parched Ningxia province to the celebrated spires of the Bordeaux châteaux, we meet the winners and losers in the scramble to slake China’s thirst for expensive luxury wines.
The narrative of the book is nicely driven by a host of colourful characters such as wine pioneer Don St Pierre and his son Don St Pierre Jr, who was briefly confined in a Chinese prison, accused of smuggling and tax evasion. Having drunk wine with them in Shanghai a dozen years ago, this reviewer found their portrayals in the book both accurate and illuminating.
While it is obvious that Mustacich is far more familiar with Bordeaux than with China and that she does not speak Chinese — one or two translations are slightly off — she gets almost everything about the country exactly right, from historical descriptions to cultural foibles.
Even those who already have a lot of knowledge on one or both of the main topics in this book — wine and China — will be surprised, and probably a bit depressed, by the story Mustacich tells.
The reviewer is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief
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