A shot of Romanée-Conti

What’s the Chinese approach to wine? Quite different from our own. Typical situation: the business dinner

(photo Chronicle/Craig Lee)

(photo Chronicle/Craig Lee)

There’s tennis elbow, and there’s the Chinese ganbei elbow. Both are harmful and force to stop activities, whatever they may be, with or without a tennis racket. Ganbei, 干杯 in ideograms, is the Chinese word for “drink it all” (gan, 干, means ”dry”;  bei, 杯, means “glass”) and it’s basically a question of applying the nightclub shot approach to a boule – even of Romanée-Conti from ’79: slurp... gulped down in half a second.

Over ten years in China, what with lessons and wine tastings as sommelier and wine educator, I’ve seen more people wounded by ganbei than by banzai. It is no coincidence that Chinese authorities have decided to move domestic consumption from baijiu (白酒, the infamous traditional spirit made with sorghum and grains) to western wine: getting wasted with a wine juice at 13% is less harmful than filling an empty stomach with a bottle of spirit at 52%. After all, it may well be, as the centennial proverb goes, that “a glass of baijiu will cure an ulcer” but the social cost of the local spirit has hit hard on the government’s finances.

But what is the Chinese approach to wine?

Though there’s a big difference in behaviour between those working in the central neighbourhood of Jing An in Shanghai and those who approach it in the remote towns of the empire, it’s also true that the latter form the mass, while the former is a rare bird. Therefore, we’ll refer to this, and in a half serious way we’ll define four situations you’ll come across when dealing with wine in China: 1) a  business dinner; 2) dining with friends; 3) a wine tasting; 4) a wine buyer. This piece will be entirely dedicated to the first. Chinese business dinners are indeed a wine-existential micro world that deserves space and the highest respect. The other three situations will instead by covered soon.

«In a business dinner», says Roberto Fabbri, co-founder and general manager at Amore, importing some 20 Italian labels, «Chinese people always appear with a crowd of colleagues, assistants, lackey, so much so you never know with whom you’re speaking». You don’t know who’s the boss (often the most modest, just to make things more complicated), you don’t know who’s an old classmate from 32 years back, who’s only there so as to find the way back to the hotel for the person in charge.

The easiest-to-spot roles are two: the professional drinker, that is to say the person who has to propose and respond to the constant toasts with the guest if the big boss is in défaillance; and the er-nai, that is to say the silent partner of a lifetime, usually, who when not present at an important dinner, is kept in a residence in Shenzhen. You can tell the first because he’s the record holder of the ganbei elbow and has red purple cheeks. The second, is the only woman at the table, and young.

Once each guest used to have in front of him a series of baijiu and you’d start with a first ganbei before holding the chopsticks, on a strictly empty stomach (so much so the more expert have broth or rice porridge before leaving for dinner). With the healthy turning point of the recent years, people now get drunk with French wine: Château Lafite, or Laffite, or Lafitte, as long as it’s château.

After the dances begin, says Lapo Mazzei, of historic Tuscan winery Marchesi Mazzei «one of the questions to break the ice is 'how much can you drink?'». Here indeed key performance indicators are measured in decilitres. Foreigners are always a little surprised by this request, still each guest can tell you with pride what is their best performance. If you answer with a banal «I don’t know... I try to drink well and when my head starts spinning I stop» they’ll look at you with suspicion: «This is a shrewd laowai  (laowai 老外 is the slightly reverential (but also not reverential) word for foreigner)».

Meanwhile, the strangest dishes are served: broth of unicorn, mixed courtyard animals, eggs of millennial dinosaur, sometimes larvae you’ll dip in chopped Xinzhang. «All that generates surprise in the guest is welcome – confirms Vito Donatiello, co-founder of Italian Wine & Food, importing a dozen Italian wineries. - «The flavour of the wine is the least of the problems, so much so even cork is an appreciated smell». In fact, it shows refined ageing, a smell of old Europe.


Labels specially designed for the Chinese market

Labels specially designed for the Chinese market

The goal is to spend a night improving the new business friendship, possibly reaching final drunkenness. «This not because Chinese are suspicious and want to make you drunk – following our saying in vino veritas, says Roberto Fabbri – but because social events are like excursions in the woods for a group of night creatures, where the beta specimen must prove his strength, and the aspiring beta to be must prove they have what it takes (an approach to drinking that doesn’t differ much from some cultures in northern Europe).

Trying to be spared is unrealistic: «I remember at one point I made up I was diabetic – says Jannis Bahr, F&B first at Westin  and now at Hyatt – It was still in the baijiu days. During a dinner at Henan at the first toast I raised my arm and said I had sky high glycaemia. A professional drinker arrived and said 'well... I also have diabetes, for 5 years now...even doctors say baijiu is like medicine'. And he gulped down a glass like others take Paracetamol».

So the evening goes. In the end nobody will remember Lafite, written with one or two Fs, or unicorns. Like in every respectable fairy tale. To be clear, you go home exhausted but you also had fun. As long as the business dinner experience doesn’t happen too often. Or you’ll end up in hospital. And perhaps find a doctor who prescribes five baijiu a day.

1. to be continued

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

China Grill

Tasty reports from China and the Far East from our collaborator Claudio Grillenzoni

Claudio Grillenzoni


Claudio Grillenzoni

A journalist with the bad habit of xenophilia (natural, he's a Germanist) and food (he's from Modena ), he now lives a happy life in China, in Shanghai, building connections between East and West 

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