His dreams, drop by drop
Updated: 2012-06-03 08:02
He is a Travel Channel host, and his program reaches millions across China. But his first love is wine, and food. Or rather, wine with food. Johnny Chan shares his deepest thoughts about wine drinking, making and selling in China with Pauline D. Loh.
Ex-banker Johnny Chan is from Hong Kong, but now spends most of his time traveling out of Shenzhen and Beijing where he lives with his wife, Lily. The couple shuttle between their homes, sometimes together, more often than not separately as she looks after the business end of their common interests. It's hard to pin Chan down for an appointment, because he's either in Chaozhou, Guangdong province showing a Singaporean food guru what real street food is, or heading to Xinjiang to make sure the grapes for his wines are getting the proper care. Or he may be in Shandong, where his biodynamic Australian winemaker is carefully nurturing next year's vintage. When we finally meet, it's in Hong Kong, at the JW Marriot's Reidel Room, enjoying a sparkling bottle that Chan has carefully chosen. The interview stretches from the slotted half hour to an hour and a half, and we still had more to talk about. We make a date to continue in Beijing. It is again a challenge, because this time Chan is off to shoot his popular food and travel program on China's Travel Channel, a show that is consistently top-rated and attracts something like 5 million viewers per episode. Even my page editor admits she's an adoring fan. That's because Chan is charming, and knowledgeable. What he knows about wine in China could probably be fodder for at least a couple more years of television. But it is his passion for wine that is most infectious.
Q + A Jonny Chan
What first triggered your interest in wine? What was it about the purple tipple that held such attraction to you?
It must be because of my passion for food, because my father always took me out to dinner with him when I was young. I think at the beginning, wine simply complemented that process. I was intrigued how every bottle can be different even from the same carton. I finally became an addict because not only is wine alive in the bottle but there is a story behind every vintage. A bottle of wine can tell you the culture and history of the people who make it.
You have become almost evangelistic in your promotion of wine. Would you care to document your involvement?
California Wine Showcase and Sensory Evaluation Classes (endorsed by the Hong Kong Hotels Association) in Hong Kong and China 1993
Organized First Asian International Wine Competition in Hong Kong 1995
Organized Wine and Spirits Asia 95 Conference in Hong Kong 1995
The First Hong Kong Wine Tasting Extravaganza 1995
German Winemakers' Dinner in Hong Kong, with the German Wine Institute 1995
Chilean Wine Promotion, with the Chilean Embassy 1995
German Wine Experience in Beijing, with the German Wine Institute 1996
1998 Asia Pacific Conference (co-sponsored by the International Flight Catering Association and the International Inflight Food Service Association), key speaker 1998
Wine is Fun, first Chinese wine book published in Shanghai (listed in the China National Library in Beijing the same year) 1998
University of Catalunya (CEIMO) in Barcelona, Spain, one of the two key speakers 2002
Award from Princess Anne, President of Save the Children, for supporting the program for underprivileged children in China 2005
First Chinese wine to be served on all routes (294) in an international airline (KLM) in both business and economic cabins for two months 2007
Wine is Fun Book 2, published in China 2009
World's first traceable Chinese wine, under the 1421 label 2010
More specifically, you are now based more in the mainland than in Hong Kong do you see a future for wines in China?
I believe China will become part of the international wine community and wine will become part of the everyday life in China, just like tea. I believe China will become a major and most important market for the global wine industry.
As one of the founders of a Chinese vineyard, you are putting your money where it matters. Do you see China ever becoming a major producer of wines in the world?
The vineyard is the most important part in the wine-making process. China will become a major producer.
At this stage, China is a New World entry. Also, China is one of the biggest markets in the world and will continue to grow for some time. From a consumption point of view, it will become a major producer to feed its own domestic demand. As an exporting identity, China has a long way to go in terms of establishing an export market that is already very much saturated. The other point to consider is that China is a major world market for imports.
Skeptics say China just does not have the terroir for wines - the north being too cold and the south too wet. Why did you choose Xinjiang?
China has the terroir. The essence is to understand better each of the different regions in China or each of the different plots. It is how to understand and manage the vineyards which is really the issue.
Wines produced from cold climate regions have their special attractions compared to those from warm climates.
Xinjiang has hot summer days and cool nights so the vines can rest well in the evening. It has very little disease exactly because of the very cold winter. Waters are snow melt from the Tianshan Mountain. Like any other agricultural products a clean uncontaminated environment is the key.
China has terroir.
It is just a matter of the Chinese wine industry determining and planting suitable varieties in the particular sites or terroir.
For example, varieties such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay enjoy and are well suited for some of the cooler sites, whilst Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon enjoy somewhat warmer locations. Once the sites are explored and suitable varieties planted, proper viticulture practices need to be applied to ensure maximum flavor potential that can produce world-class wines.
Xinjiang is a good start for cool climate varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon because of its climate and soil characteristics.
From wine connoisseur to vineyard owner - how did you make that transition?
Blood, sweat and tears, but most of all thanks to my wife who never questions my passion, especially since many of the efforts are not commercially rewarding. Fortunately, I am not the only one sharing the dream and there are many people walking together with me through the years, with the same passion.
Wine culture in China - where do you think it sits at the moment? Does it need more active education to make the transition from baijiu to hongjiu?
Wine plays an important role in the exchange of cultures among different countries as our world grows smaller. Wine is fast becoming part of everyday life in China as people are traveling more, and experiencing new culinary cultures.
On the same token, visitors are coming more and more into China, bringing their lifestyles with them. Wine is part of that important ingredient.
I believe in the unpretentious understanding and appreciation of wine just as we may love a painting, enjoy listening to Chopin's music, or drive a super sports car but we may not know how to paint, write music or understand what's under the bonnet.
The problem now in China is the lack of educational materials in Chinese.
Baijiu is part of the Chinese cultural heritage and it will never be obsolete. I believe it is as important as hongjiu in that both drinks need more active education - not just in the understanding of the drinks but also the responsibility and behavior of appreciation of both.
Baijiu is mostly made from grain which is food for people, therefore, there is always that important factor one needs to keep the balance.
Food and wine pairing - do you feel that is the direction it will go? Or do you think it will be appreciation by the glass/bottle?
Wine should always be enjoyed with food.
Tell me three things you love about wines (imported or local) in China.
More imported wines, more local producers aware of the importance of quality, and plenty of rooms for developing the industry.
Tell me three things you hate about wines/wine culture currently?
Pretentious purchasing, arrogance and drinking by the labels or points.
Johnny Chan will soon be starting a column for China Daily in which he will write about wine and wine culture in China.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.