Establishing a winery in an exotic locale is the kind of project we might daydream about, but one we have the good sense not to actually pursue. Englishman Chris Ruffle didn’t have such sense. Rather, he made his mission even harder by doing it in China, and from scratch, and, to top it off, building a Scottish-style castle at the winery. The highs and lows of this adventure are told with great honesty and humour in A Decent Bottle of Wine in China.
The idea for the vineyard came from a chance encounter in 2004. Ruffle, who at the time enjoyed a glass of wine but was very much a novice, was visiting a winery in Shanxi province. French winemaker Gérard Colin mentioned a valley in Shandong, which he thought would be ideal for a vineyard. Later that year, Ruffle found and secured an ideal location in the area. He rented 14 hectares for the vineyard and secured a lease of 10 hectares for the castle.
While the project was something of a whim and Ruffle had no background in wine, he did – as a successful Shanghai-based funds-manager – know China and have deep pockets. With typical self-deprecation, Ruffle explains the origins of his engagement with the country:
My involvement with China was not the result of any far-sighted plan, but merely of youthful rebellion. Tired of being asked what I wanted to study at university, I picked the strangest subjects I could think of: Chinese with Philosophy.
He studied Chinese at Oxford, “one of only four students in my year in the whole university, in the late 1970s.” In 1983 he went to Beijing to work for a metals-trading firm. He worked as a financial analyst during Japan’s booming late 80s, then did stints in Taipei and Hong Kong. Since 2002 he has lived in Shanghai, where he runs a fund management company called Open Door.
Ruffle planted vines in 2005 and had his first harvest in 2007. Unseasonal rains damaged most of the grapes, and the wine made from the remainder was barely drinkable let alone saleable. 2010 was another disastrous year; a wet summer and mismanagement meant that not a single grape was harvested.
Ruffle began to have doubts about his dream project. Was the area – with so much summer rainfall and high humidity – suitable for wine growing? Was it really possible to manage the vineyard remotely from Shanghai “given the local incompetence and graft”? Ruffle’s Taiwanese wife had fewer doubts; she knew it was a slow-motion train wreck:
… after her early support she had now come to regard the enterprise as a hopeless money pit. However, in fairness, it should be said that she has the same view of all investment in China. Her grandfather, a landlord in Jiangsu, had his ancestral land confiscated by the Communists; it was 300 mu in area, exactly the same as our vineyard.
On top of the weather woes, there were staffing problems; the local workers had no experience with grape growing and there was a high turnover of foreign managers. Moreover, bureaucratic wheels required greasing with countless expressions of goodwill (read: bribery or mutual assistance depending on how legalistic you want to be). Ruffle describes an exchange with an official:
“If there is ever anything we can ever do for you, you have only to ask.”
“Handbags,” she said, setting aside her clipboard.
Apparently the key is to leave the original invoices inside, to show that they are real brand-name handbags, and not fakes.
A reoccurring theme of the book is Ruffle’s naivety and misfortune in repeatedly getting ripped off. Take his cook, for example, a Mrs. Zhao, who Ruffle and his wife let stay in their Shanghai home to escape her violent husband.
When she asked for a loan of RMB 20,000