Whines/Gripes: Buyer Beware pt. 2: Smuggled and Cooked

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Last time I raged on and on like a newly arrived malcontent about the ugliness of counterfeiting, fakery, deception and the complicit nature of some in our community in that facet of commerce. I don’t suppose that won many supporters among shop-a-holics, consumption-a-holics and materialism-a-holics. Sorry about that, but I believe someone needs to say these things in the name of betterment.

This time, I’d like to recount my introduction to a smuggled wine, and the thoughts it kicked off inside me.

I was presented with a 2008 Bordeaux bottle. There was something ‘wrong’ with it. Her wry smile gave it away as a game we were playing.

I got to sleuthing. First, it had no rear Chinese language label. Secondly, the cork shrink wrap foil had no winery mark. It was from a place I have never heard of, which, quite frankly, given my encyclopaedic knowledge of all things ‘vinous Francais’, I felt wasn’t a real place anyway.

Plus, the item was claiming the vague Bordeaux Superieur status, which is rather vague and provides easy cover, it neither being superior to much nor limited to any discernible terroir. Lastly, although it proclaimed itself to be from the reputedly dubious (and therefore) lower priced 2008, 4 years is perhaps a bit long in the tooth for the type of lower quality wine it was making the effort to suggest it was.

She beamed at me, “Of course,…it’s smuggled!” She waited for my approval, saw my expression become uncomfortable, then went on with a flurry, changing tac a little and making this about me, offered, custome haul china“How else can you make a lot of money? This is why the price is low. If you pay the taxes, you will not make any money.”

Her position was clear: I was doing the wine business all wrong. By paying for product that had been cleared through customs with duty and import taxes levied and paid on it, I was ignoring the potential for maximised profitability. I ought to be using different channels, keeping and making more money for myself, wheeling and dealing outside the law, like the loveable scoundrel Del Boy Trotter (Not the Kray twins, then?).

Tax is always emotive. I really don’t understand why so many people attempt to avoid or evade it. There are very useful reasons for having it: Social Welfare, Law & Order, National security, Transport Infrastructure, Police, Hospitals, it goes on. Such a blatant dis-regard for the reasons taxes exist can’t be ignored lest we end up with even more polarised societies a la Blade Runner, or worse. For many, it’s the baseline for line of social responsibility.

Yet, many of those social systems seem less coherent now when considered alongside the notion of the spirit of individual drive for personal gain. If you can make a lot of money (by avoiding contributing) that has to be good, huh? Maybe getting rich as a gangsta and then more rich as a rapper is even better.

Her excitability rather deflated me. I don’t do ‘illegal’ very well. I am reminded how upset I became when the mass pirating of music was touted as a major nail in the coffin of the music business, which ultimately has led to the demise of that business (to my ears anyhow). I recall that I used to feel guilty buying an LP record, taping it for myself for my ‘walkman’ and lending the tape to mates. ‘Home taping is killing music’ went the government watchdog’s accusation.

prog  artists 3I don’t think I significantly added to the demise of the artists in question. I seemed to spend every available penny on music in the 80’s and 90’s, so someone did OK out of my obsession. But I do feel that recording artists are no longer as free as they were to be creative, to develop styles, expect decently long careers, invent new genres or (lord-help-us) take risks. Is that because the economics of ‘instant gratification’ culture now holding sway, mean everyone can have a free Beiber download or a half-price, fake Cliquot; if they want it.

Was it always like that and I missed it?

It seems now that fame, once long earned and enduring, is very fleeting; sometimes lasting less than the previously championed 15 minutes. We have more TV with more content that we increasingly lack the concentration to watch. More meals with bigger platefuls (than we need). More trinkets and shiny things (we forget we bought, or why). More holidays (we can’t afford to take). More wine, more women and more songs to sing. More baggage to carry around a world we desperately ‘must see’. More stuff to cover each and every surface and fill our lives with self congratulatory (empty) materialism.

Music is replaced by reality TV programmes about music. Content died long ago, in favour of drama. I am reminded of Don Maclean singing, “The day that music died’.

Everyone has more (which turns out to produce is less satisfaction) and thus, we are all diminished by our own greed.

Soapbox over…erm…back to the smuggled wine recount.

She proffered the bottle of the ‘dodgy-looking’ red for me to try at home. I declined with an unapologetic smile; doubting the contents, and feeling non-plussed about the scenario I was in: being shown and offered inclusion in a dodgy world with fake wines as empty trophies to a bygone aspiration, bent awry by impatience and greed. Convoluted over-analysis or what? Maybe.

Happily, it’s probably always been like that. Even in the halcyon days (that never were) when that was the way it was: crooks, rogues, villains and all were everywhere, into everything and fleecing everyone.

Why should I care?

To all intents and purposes, wine is treated as a food product and there are meant to be stringent food safety standards in place and being to be adhered to. Yet with lies and deceit so prevalent in the Middle Kingdom I do wonder who’ll be left at the helm when corruption, nepotism and mismanagement continue to hold China (and all such societies) back.

ASC bossmanIn an interview in Decanter Magazine last year, ASC Fine Wines, co-founder Don St Pierre estimated that around 15-20% of wine in circulation in China is fake, with that figure rising to 30% if mis-labelling is included, where an inferior wine is passed off for a higher-quality one.

St Pierre: ‘Ironically, recent attempts to crack down on smuggling may have the long-term effect of driving down wine prices.’

He went on to say that he supposed that if smuggling routes were closed, and buyers had to pay full duty on their wines, prices would have to realign downwards, as many would just become too expensive: and the last thing the industry wants is for China to stop buying the wines…

Smugglers and pirates care only about maximising profits; nothing and no-one else. Or is that true? They will and do put sometimes dangerous compounds in, to bulk-out a product: which nails onto their mast quite firmly that they do not care about side affects or the safety of the end-consumer. But not all, surely.

Remember the Austrian wine furore in the 1980’s? ‘Antifreeze in Austrian wine‘ went the headlines. I won’t recount that whole story here, but suffice to say the reputation of Austrian wine is only now recovering from that debacle.

smuggler image 1The UK had a problem in 2012 that was widely publicised, which included illegal bottles of spirits sold in off-licences in Brighton and Hove found to contain dangerous methanol levels. Cat MacBeth, a trading standards officer, was quoted on a UK Site:

 this stuff is not being produced in a clean safe environment. They don’t care about health and safety. They are making these drinks from industrial grade alcohol, which can be very dangerous.

There have been some prominent prison sentences handed out in the last year involving both large and small wine businesses in China.

Until pirating, smuggling, counterfeiting and intellectual property theft are considered immoral actions, and more importantly, policed, the status quo will plod on. Morals erode further, ethics stretch thinner; trust and generosity wane.

With that certainly not even being a given in the ‘halcyon’ vision of the west, I am not holding my breath waiting for improvements here in SH any time soon, either, even if I were hoping for such a positive influence from overseas.

Additionally, on the UK site, something to bear in mind:

Illegal alcohol can contain dangerous ingredients at high levels such as bleach, methylated spirits, methanol, isopropanol, harmful cleaning fluids, paint stripper and antifreeze (again). (It) is smuggled and industrially produced in a dangerous factory process. Its manufacture is linked to criminal gangs.

And that’s in the UK, where there are trading standards!

My advice?

  • Avoid unreasonably cheap wine. Ask questions about what you are prepared to put into your body. Avoid buying fakes which you know are fakes (for the good of the soul of man). Anything below ¥80 in a retail shop is doubtful on several grounds: ‘knock-off’, ‘smuggled’,’ fake’ or ‘bankrupt’ (or all of them). Sometimes the shop is genuinely using the wine as a loss leader, but believe me, that is a very alien concept, to our local hosts.
  • Be wary of Supermarket selloff’s. Cooked’ and ‘oxidised’ wines are so common in China’s supermarkets, as to not really warrant further mention. Convenience leads people to taking risks. Shop-keepers know it. They keep selling it. The regularity with which I open newly purchased food packages (recently bought at City Shop, yet 6 months past its sell by date) takes the piss. And there is no local enforcement of the scant consumer protection laws to keep you out of harm’s way.
  • Low prices imply wrongdoing, a threat to your wallet and taste-buds: and a greater propensity for harm from imbibing. prog  artists 2
  • Drink safer, higher quality, wines.
  • Drink less. Less is more.

(which might even apply to Progressive Rock Music)


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