When Yorkshireman Chris Ruffle decided to build a vineyard complete with a Scottish castle in the midst of the countryside in eastern China, he was expecting difficulties, but nothing on the scale he encountered. But build it he did, and the wine is now flowing. A Decent Bottle of Wine in China tells the unique story of an adventurer determined to make his dream come true regardless of what strange and formidable obstacles are placed in his path.
About the Author
Chris Ruffle has a first class degree in Chinese from Brasenose College, Oxford. He sold Fairy Toilet Soap for Procter & Gamble in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, before moving to Beijing in 1983 to work for metal trader Wogen Resources. After studying for a diploma in Japanese at Sheffield University he became a financial analyst for Warburg Securities in the bull market in Tokyo in the late ‘80’s before opening their Taiwan office. He was one of the earliest foreign investors in China’s domestic stock market on behalf of Scottish fund manager Martin Currie.
Read an Excerpt
A Decent Bottle of Wine in China
By Chris Ruffle
Earnshaw BooksCopyright © 2015 Chris Ruffle
All rights reserved.
It was May Day
The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
It was May Day in 2004. I had been visiting companies in Taiyuan, the capital of gritty Shanxi province, a region rich in coal, noodles and history. I was making these visits as part of my day job, investing in China's stock markets for a British fund management company. My wife, Chang Ti-fang (hereafter known as Tiffany), had accompanied me to take advantage of the long weekend to visit some tourist sites. Our prime target was Pingyao, a well-preserved old town still surrounded by its Ming dynasty walls and well worth visiting. I had heard from a colleague that in the vicinity there was a vineyard, which employed a French winemaker and produced drinkable wine.
I was, at this point, a wine novice. I enjoyed drinking wine, and had visited some vineyards when I worked in Australia, but knew nothing beyond this. My few encounters with grape wine in China, usually a desperate attempt to avoid the more lethal Chinese vodka-like spirit, "baijiu", had not been pleasant. I had once organised a barbecue for a group of investors on the slopes of Laoshan near Qingdao at the Huadong Winery, which had produced a passable Chardonnay. More typical, however, was an American colleague, and wine snob, who, when asked by me whether he would like to try a Chinese wine to go with his Chinese meal answered: "Ask me in a hundred years ..."
So it was in a spirit of adventure that we left the main road, and bumped our way along the track to Grace Winery. The place itself - large white-painted concrete buildings - lacked charm, and the dusty Shanxi countryside was brown and uninteresting. But the wine was good, especially the Merlot. Over lunch with the winemaker, Gerard Colin, we tasted (and I was charged for) four bottles. Gerard is large, stockily-built and as bald as a potato. He smoked steadily throughout our meeting and said, were he to stop smoking, it would take him a while to re-calibrate his taste buds. He explained how, now over 60 years old, he had come from his home in St. Emilion to this remote and lonely spot (a long and rather sad story which involved him losing his father's property in a failed business venture and finding himself with a large financial hole to fill). We talked about rugby union, popular in his part of France. I have a picture of our meeting that first day, with Gerard looking strangely uncomfortable.
Surely Gerard should be able to find a more pleasant and accessible site for a vineyard in all his travels around China? He agreed that there was just such as place, a lovely valley by a lake near the coastal resort of Penglai in Shandong. He mentioned that it should be possible to set up a small vineyard there for just US$1 million. He had a French acquaintance, a Monsieur Humbert, who worked for the Yantai government and might be able to help. The seed was planted (and Gerard's first wild underestimate made).
One month later, I was visiting companies in Shandong, an Eastern seaboard province with a population of about 100 million. I stayed in Yantai, a large port on the north coast of the Shandong peninsula, which sticks out towards Korea, as evidenced by the many Korean companies which have now set up there. Yantai is also the home of the Changyu Pioneer Wine, founded in the early 20th century by Zhang Bishi, an overseas Chinese businessman from Java, with help on winemaking from the Austro-Hungarian diplomat Baron Max von Babo. His initial contract promised $200 per month plus lodging and a share of the profits, but forbad him from telling anyone if the wine was no good. The company is today listed on the Chinese stock market, was a few years ago the subject of a management buyout and is now market leader. Its museum and restaurant are well worth a visit, but I suggest you drink tea with your meal (if you must order Changyu wine, you should order the white from their recently-purchased New Zealand property).
I made time to visit Yantai Hill, now a pleasant park dotted with consulates built by the major foreign powers after Yantai was opened as a treaty port in the 1860's (it was then known to foreigners as Chefoo). Each nation's consulate is built in its own national style, with Britain's colonnaded consulate building occupying, of course, the best position, overlooking the harbour. The old American consulate contains a small, but worthwhile, museum describing Yantai's history over this period. It is all described in Marxist terms – foreign colonialists exploiting Chinese workers in the semi-feudal society of the time – but it looked to me more like foreigners creating local employment through trade and investment, often for little reward.
As I was later to learn, Yantai's existence owes much to the first English consul, a Mr. Morrison, who decided that its port was larger and deeper than the originally nominated treaty port of Penglai (old name, Dengzhou). After all these years, all the wars and revolutions, I was impressed to find that there is still a Morrison Street in Yantai.
I decided to visit the "lovely valley" that Gerard had recommended and contacted Mr. Humbert, a rather eccentric Frenchman, retired from an expatriate career in chemicals, who preferred to stay on in China to help the local government attract foreign investors rather than return to his native shores. Together with his colleague, Jack Xia, we drove for about one hour in a minibus, ending with a steep climb up a muddy track through apple and peach orchards. I do not remember much about my first short visit. But the weather was good when we arrived--somehow weather in Qiushan valley often seems better than in the surrounding area. The scenery was, indeed, lovely. Coming over the rise, the valley suddenly opens out in front of you, with the rocky slopes of Qiushan on your left, and a long view down to a shining lake in the distance. The hillside reminded me of a recent holiday in the castle-dotted mountains of Northern Spain, its granite bones jutting out from beneath the fresh green summer grasses, scattered with low pines and cypress. I have spent so much of my time in China in anonymous, grey cities, visiting ugly factories, it was a delight to find such a place.
My next trip to Shandong was that August. Tiffany saw the site for the first time. Gerard also came, accompanied by a long-haired photographer-turned-architect called Gao Bo. We met the local officials of nearby Daxindian town, together with representatives from Penglai's foreign trade department tasked with encouraging inward investment. We lined two sides of a large table in the dingy town hall and drank tea with the leaves floating on the top (the key tactic when drinking is to blow before you suck). The mayor of Daxindian deferred to the party secretary and his deputy, an early indication that politics in China does not work as in the West.
We were shown a detailed proposal for the valley to be turned into a golf course. This had fortunately been scuppered by the central government's recent ban on further golf course developments (I'm with the Communists and Mark Twain on this one). It was on this map that we first saw marked the memorial to the Taoist scholar Qiu Chuji, which attracts thousands of worshippers, and the site of his temple, which had been demolished after the communist victory. Qiushan reservoir, created in the 1950s by damming the valley, is the major source of drinking water for Penglai city, so no industrial developments are possible in the vicinity. We outlined our idea for developing high quality vineyards in the area, and emphasised the need for sensitive development in the area and protection of the environment. There was earnest nodding.
We ate the first of many banquets with a selection of officials. Heavy eating and drinking are a key element of doing business in China. Inhibitions are broken down as the table fills with plates and alcoholic toasts multiply. Soon everyone is an "old friend". Fortunately the seafood and vegetables of Shandong are delicious and cheap, although some of the more exotic dishes can try the palate of the most adventurous Westerner. Donkey, dog and insect larvae are all local favourites; the first two are passable but I advise giving a wide berth to the larvae.
This is the first time we climbed to the top of Qiushan, smelt the wild thyme sprouting from the crumbling granite soil and, whilst recovering our breath, saw the hawks launch themselves from the summit and hover in the breeze. On the precipitous north side of the hill, which is unsuitable for cultivation, there is woodland, which I am sure acts as a nature reserve to the local area. We climbed across an old wall near the top, which turned out to be the remnants of fortifications built by (or to defend against?) local Taiping rebels, the "Nien Army", in the mid 19th century. We munched fresh-picked apples and apricots, generously offered by the local farmers. Gerard crunched his way through a turnip, whittling away its skin with his penknife. We looked for possible sites for a winery and eventually chose the spot where the contours and view best suited.
It was Gao Bo who came up with the plan to build a road from the lake, rather than to go with the government's rather insensitive ("poor fengshui") plan to carve a road across the facing hill. The government, to our pleasure, agreed. Little did we foresee that this would not be a scenic winding country road, gradually revealing glimpses of the castle, but a straight highway; the authorities do not know how to build roads in any other fashion. And that the original road would, anyway, be built as planned. China has more than its share of such "pork barrel" projects. It was also on this visit that Gerard spotted a courtyard of tumble-down farm buildings, once used to grind peanuts, on the edge of the local village, Mulangou ("Peony Ditch"). He felt that these premises might be useful as an office and store whilst the winery was being built.
On this visit we met two future employees for the first time. Gerard introduced Dr. Guo Donglin, who had returned after several years of study in France to work for the Penglai Trade Bureau. Dr. Guo, with many contacts in the wine business, became our consultant and subsequently helped us to navigate our way through the labyrinth of local bureaucracy. We also met "Old Huang", the village head of Mulangou, heavily-built, dressed in army fatigues, as we wandered around the ruined farm buildings. This might have been the first time we heard his catch phrase (always said with a broad smile on his weather-beaten face at moments of adversity) "Mei wenti", "No problem". This did not actually mean that the problem would be overcome, but it made everyone feel better.
Back in Shanghai there followed an exchange of e-mails and faxes with the Daxindian government regarding terms of a contract. A local lawyer was employed. Party Secretary Liu and Mme Zhang Li from the Foreign Trade Bureau came to our 40th floor apartment in Shanghai for dinner. This accelerated negotiations, again proving the lubricating affect of wine and good food on business. At one point Liu produced a list of the taxes we were expected to pay.
"But I don't think we need to bother with this one," he said, and leaned over to scribble it out with a ball-point pen.
This was repeated as more wine was drunk until about one half of the list had been scratched off. The search also started for an architect to design the castle/winery. Gao Bo showed no interest (too far from Beijing, no carte blanche on design) and an American architectural firm said they could build me ten wineries, but could not build just one.
I recall sitting awake in the stale air of a long flight over the Pacific, whilst others slept around me. I took out the notebook I use for recording company visit notes, and started to sketch what a winery on the slopes of Qiushan might look like. I drew a castle, which would make use of the gradient of the slope. I did have some experience in this area, as you will see from the next chapter, so this is not quite as strange as it might seem. And, all boys like castles.
This is my e-mail to the Scottish architect Ian Begg, dated the 29th September 2004:
I hope that you are well. I am not sure whether you will remember me – you helped me to persuade Historic Scotland that Dairsie Castle could be re-built (much against their better judgement). I think it turned out pretty well in the end.
I now live and work in Shanghai. I have a project to grow the best wine in China, in joint venture with a friend who is a wine maker from St. Emilion. The vineyard is near the seaside town of Penglai on China's Shandong peninsula (the bit that sticks out towards Korea/Japan – please consult your atlas). As the "chateau" for the vineyard, I would like to build a Scottish castle. It is on a South-facing slope, so my idea is to have the wine factory and cellar under a courtyard, onto which the castle would face. The grapes will be hand-picked and sorted, and the wine made using gravity, with no resort to pumps, so the verticality of the castle would have a practical use. As well as hosting the tasting and selling of our wine, the castle will also be used for the wedding trade. The project also includes the restoration of a courtyard house in the local village, will be used to house the manager and visiting guests.
I remember you once said that you would like to build a Scottish castle in California. Well, this is not California, but it is a beautiful spot, looking down towards a lake over a valley full of orchards of apples, peaches and apricots. On the top of the hill where the castle would stand (called Qiushan) there is actually the remains of an old fortification dating from the Taiping Rebellion. It is our long-term plan to encourage first-grade wine makers from several countries to come to set up vineyards around the lake. There would be no Historic Scotland to contend with - the local government officials, eager to encourage our investment, are marvellously flexible on planning.
My idea is that you might consider coming up with a design after visiting the site. You could then work with a local design institute on its implementation. Local labour and materials are cheap (there is actually a granite mine not far away). My budget for the architectural design is £40,000 plus expenses.
I realise that this all sounds rather eccentric, but let me know if you have any interest and I will tell you more.
Ah, so idealistic, so naïve. ...CHAPTER 2
Rebuilding Dairsie Castle
My involvement with China was not the result of any far-sighted plan, but merely of youthful rebellion. Tired of being asked what I wanted to study at university, I picked the strangest subjects I could think of: Chinese with Philosophy. I am from Bradford in Yorkshire with no relative who had ever been to Asia, apart from grandfather, who won a cup for swimming across Hong Kong harbor when he was a private in the army. My father, an engineer frustrated in selling to European companies by his lack of foreign language skills, had always encouraged me to learn languages, but I am not sure Chinese was quite what he had in mind. And so I ended up studying Chinese at Oxford, one of only four students in my year in the whole university, in the late 1970s. The subject was taught with enthusiasm (to any of my teachers who happen to read this, my thanks). It did not seem at the time to be a terribly practical course, but it is possible that knowledge of Neo-Confucianism in the 12th Century and of the guerilla struggle in China between 1937 and 1945 has served me quite well in my subsequent career.
I must thank the Bradford Chamber of Commerce for being the first to get me to China. This upstanding body offers a scholarship to help local students improve their knowledge of foreign languages, so as to boost British trade. As a young man, faced with an imposing panel of Bradfordian businessmen, I was told, 'At this point in the interview we normally bring in someone to test your oral standard. But as we were unable to find anyone who speaks Chinese, perhaps you'd just like to say something.' After I'd burbled on for a few sentences, the chairman said, 'Well, that seems all right to me', and gave me the scholarship. Gentlemen, I hope you consider your money well spent.
My link with China has survived from 1977, when I opened my first Chinese-language textbook, written in the Gang of Four era, to the present day. On graduating in 1981 I could find no employer interested in anyone speaking Chinese, so I ended up selling Fairy Toilet Soap in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. However, by 1983 I got to Beijing with a metal trading firm called Wogen Resources, and then opened their Shanghai office in 1984. I have spent most of my time since then in Asia including stints in Taipei (1990–93 and 2000–02), Hong Kong (1993–94) and Shanghai (2002 to the present), with many visits in between. I got into finance by learning Japanese and taking an excursion into the Japanese stock market bubble in the late '80's. This financed the restoration of a Scottish castle in the 1990's, of which more below. My travels have taken me to all the provinces in China, with the sole exception of Hainan.
Excerpted from A Decent Bottle of Wine in China by Chris Ruffle. Copyright © 2015 Chris Ruffle. Excerpted by permission of Earnshaw Books.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 It was May Day,
Chapter 2 The rebuilding of Dairsie Castle,
Chapter 3 The deal is done,
Chapter 4 Setbacks notwithstanding,
Chapter 5 A change of direction,
Chapter 6 First harvest,
Chapter 7 All change,
Chapter 8 It's too late to be pessimistic ...,
Chapter 9 The first bottle,
Chapter 10 Frost on snow,
Interlude I Letter From China,
Chapter 11 Year of persistence,
Interlude II How we make wine at Treaty Port,
Chapter 12 The French connection,
Interlude III Art at the Scottish Castle in Shandong,
Chapter 13 The end,
Interlude IV The wine industry in China,
Chapter 14 Not quite the end,
Appendix 1 Map of Shandong,
Appendix 2 Bibliography,
Appendix 3 Labels,