October 23, 2010

Foreign Exchange

As I seem too often to be starting these Lab missives with an apology for delay, I have instead decided to officially memo-rialize that Lab Reports will come a little less frequently than previously. At some point, I'm sure we will return to our pre-Asia pace of experimentation. But right now... frankly, we're just too busy making history to have much time for chronicling it.

In addition to drinking from it, we make an ongoing and continuing effort to hedge the value of the bottles in the Lab's cellars. Foreign currency has long been our favorite hedging vehicle. Lately, roiled markets have meant we've been crazy-busy. Mostly busy selling as many US dollars as we can. As the Fed seems to be long green ink, we've really had to step beyond our usual efforts.

Until today. Today, we have a new strategy.

Instead of trading currencies, we are starting our own.

Now, just like the United States Federal Reserve, we can use quantitative easing as a way of reducing the real value of our significant tabs at bars, restaurants and wineries around the world.

We hatched this audacious plan after tasting our way through a fair few of the gray market Delatite Wines we recently acquired.

And they're as crazy-good as our new Lab Rupees.

The 2008 sparkling Pinot Noir, Demelza, presented great depth and breadth. A faint salmon hue with beautiful aromas of strawberries, pink grapefruit, baking bread and Turkish delight. The palate is a swirling mix and linear stretch of all those same flavors, especially the Ruby pink grapefruit, with some beguiling chalky limestone minerality.

The 2008 sparking Gewurztraminer, Polly, showed lemon and grapefruit zest, spice and toast. This one might be a little imprecise on the attack but spreads out with a rich mid-palate burst of apple fruit with tangerine and grapefruit acidity before a finish of pencil leads. I'm thinking this might benefit from a little cellar time. Although it drinks beautifully now. And did I mention it's Gewurztraminer? Crazy-crazy.

David Ritchie's white and sparkling wines all seem to have a French soul (I have no experience with the reds). The Sauvignon Blanc is more Sancerre than Australia. Same for the Alsatian styled Gewurztraminer (non-sparkling) and the un-wooded Chardonnay (that must in fact see a little oak?). And they are all windows into Ritchie's uniquely located vineyards. I am a fan of the entire range.

But it was the 2009 Riesling, whose own soul lies a little East of France somewhere along the Mosel, that I found most intriguing. Its flavors of lime and grapefruit and whatever lies beneath the Buller soil that drinks like limestony slate, with traces of clover and honey, are simply delicious. And while it's style is decidedly German, this is not a wine that aspires to be from someplace it is not. It is profoundly tethered to its high country Victorian trellises.

Even if it's easy enough to pour a glass, close your eyes, and imagine a vineyard along the banks of some Rhine tributary that you've never heard of and cannot get to.

October 5, 2010

Learning Curve

I'm going to tell you a little story about how wine gets done in Hong Kong.

First some backstory: I was in Australia not long ago where I met biodynamic vigneron David Ritchie. Ritchie's Delatite Winery is nestled at the base of the Mt Buller ski area and is an Australian version of an Alpine Winery. I don't think they're particularly well known beyond their immediate region (so far...) but I was served one of their sparkling Gewürztraminers (yes, Gewürztraminer) at a luncheon a few years ago. It was so precise, so unique and so utterly unexpected that I remember having to leave the table and sit with it in an out of the way corner for a brief spell.

When I met Ritchie, I asked him if he had a distributor in Hong Kong. He said he did, but they only brought in a few of his wines and none of the sparkling ones. I'm sure my expression was crestfallen, but then he said, "Although there is this guy..."

"This guy" turned out to be Alvis Kwan. David introduced me to him via e-mail. It turns out Alvis is a building engineer who specializes in ventilation and air-conditioning systems for commercial and large residential buildings. Alvis is also interested in wine. Alvis spent some time in Australia where he met someone who now manages wine sales for Delatite. So with a view towards an unspecific, future venture in the wine business, Alvis decided upon an experimental import of a pallet of Delatite wines. A pallet is roughly 56 cases.

He figured he'd sell them to his friends and the odd nut like me who showed up at his door. Maybe put them in a storefront he bought with his 401k. Or perhaps even sell them into the Mainland. He figured the only way you can figure out the wine business is by dipping your toe into 672 bottles -- a palate's worth.

In Hong Kong -- Tom Wark, are you listening? You'll like this part -- there is no 3-tier system. No divide between importer, distributor and retailer. And, as of 2008, no customs duty. If you're an HVAC engineer and you want to import a large quantity of wine, then you just do it.

How about that?

So I arranged to buy a case of sparkling wine and a case of white wines for the Lab, as well as a couple of cases of whites for a friend who grew up in view of Mt Buller.

I drove out myself to meet Alvis at his office in San Po Kong, an industrial section of Kowloon perhaps best known as the site of deadly riots that grew, with help from the Cultural Revolution, out of a non-violent workers' protest at an artificial flower factory in 1967.

I paid less for the wine than I might have paid had I bought them at the winery's cellar door because my only middle-man is a building engineer with an office in San Po Kong.