"Cherries?" I said.
"It's nice," I said, swishing the Cab around my mouth. My layman's impression was that this $12 bottle of Chinese wine was reasonably good.
The next Bordeaux?
In September, a Bordeaux-style wine from northwestern China's He Lan Qing Xue winery won top honors at an international competition, the Decanter World Wine Awards. With Chinese businesses dominating industries once monopolized by Americans and Europeans, is Chinese wine on track to overtake the West's?
Hardly, said Walker, founder and co-director of Beijing-based Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting and one of China's foremost wine experts.
I met Walker and Ragg, her husband and business partner, on a torpid July afternoon at their downtown Beijing office. Brochures advertising Chinese vineyards were sprinkled across their conference table, but she said that the quality of most Chinese wines is "depressing."
Walker said China's nascent wine industry is constrained by both physical and bureaucratic climates: Wine-growing areas are either too cold or receive too much rain, and because the Chinese government owns agricultural land, winemakers don't have much incentive to invest in infrastructure.
Fewer than 10 Chinese vineyards produce wine that Walker would consider "really good," and only two stand out: Grace Vineyard, in central China's Shanxi Province, and Silver Heights, in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Neither is sold outside the country, she said, but they are available at such fine dining landmarks as the Peninsula Shanghai and the Beijing restaurant Maison Boulud.
Fine wines don't square with my shoestring budget, so in hopes of scoring a free tasting, I took a cab from Walker's office to Pudao Wines, a store in the shadow of Rem Koolhaas' CCTV building. But none were on tap at a pressurized tasting machine, and bottles of Silver Heights were retailing for nearly $65.
That evening I flew west from Beijing, vowing to sample more Chinese wine by other means.
A four-hour flight brought me to Urumqi, capital of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which Walker and Ragg say is more climatically "promising" for wine-grape growing than other parts of the country.
Despite emails and phone calls, I couldn't arrange tours at any Xinjiang vineyard, so at a downtown Urumqi bodega I purchased three nondescript bottles of Xinjiang wine. The labels were mostly in Chinese, and the bill came to less than $10.
At the hostel where I was staying, I uncorked the bottles for a festive posse of Chinese and American tourists, and we drank over shouts of ganbei — bottoms up!" in Chinese — and platters of spicy chicken.
Xinjiang is famous for its grapes, but these inexpensive wines did not impress; the general consensus was that they were palatable only when chased by beer or baijiu.
"They taste like $4 or $5 American wines: cheap, with a bit of an alcoholic burn," said Kalif Mathieu, 24, a Peace Corps volunteer from Illinois based in Gansu Province. "And this one? It's wine, but not — know what I mean?"
I did: The wine in question had a nose of expired grape juice, and its Chinese label listed such ingredients as honey, lemons and roses. Chai Zi Li, a tourist from the eastern city of Nanjing, remarked that it tasted more like a wine cooler.
Chai, who owns the Nanjing bar Simple Chai, said the Chinese drinkers he knows typically buy wines from France, Chile, Australia and South Africa. But he added that some Chinese wine is "so-so."
When I asked Chai if he serves Chinese wine at his bar, he smiled and lit a cigarette.
He said, "I use it for my sangria!"