Global Glance: December 21, 2015
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Welcome back to Global Glance. This week we look at:
- Chinese culture and the fine wine market
- A British expat jailed for making wine
- Expat drinking in general and “marting” in South Korea
Chinese Culture and the Fine Wine Market
I’ve read that wine is the only collectible intended to be consumed. I mention this because it’s interesting, and because it goes some ways towards explaining the collective fascination with stories of people spending thousands of dollars on single bottles of wine, the contents of which are ultimately destined to be flushed down the toilet (or the drain, if the wine goes bad).
For whatever reasons, wine is deeply appealing and people are willing to pay huge sums for it, in part because making quality wine can’t be done by an act of the will and so there are limited quantities of the stuff. Wine has of course been traded across borders for centuries. For example, this brief history of port wine by the producer Taylor’s notes: “The Romans, who arrived in Portugal in the second century BC and remained for over five hundred years, grew vines and made wine on the banks of the Douro River … The period of prosperity which followed the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1143 saw wine become an important export.”
When the subject of the global wine trade arises today, the rather odd relationship between China and France (in particular Bordeaux) almost inevitably follows. For an excellent brief discussion of this relationship, check out world-renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson’s good, short review of Suzanne Mustacich’s book Thirsty Dragon, published last month in The Financial Times. The review is a fascinating, brief case study of the ways in which cultural misunderstandings can profoundly affect economies. Robinson explains that Chinese investments in high-end Bordeaux wine mushroomed after 2000, filling a gap left by departing American buyers. Buying and giving bottles of Bordeaux as gifts in China became enormously popular among the Chinese elite, and of course at that time there was plenty of money in China to go around, all of which drove up Bordeaux prices.
This splurge was followed in 2012 by a Chinese anti-corruption campaign and a declining Chinese stock market. These and other factors have led many Chinese investors in recent years to cancel multi-million dollar orders and generally stop investing in Bordeaux. Robinson writes, “Even after the Chinese exit from the en primeur market, China with Hong Kong still accounts for a quarter of Bordeaux exports. But given how dependent Bordeaux now is on China, it does seem strange that gulfs in understanding persist, and that the Bordelais did not realize so much of their livelihood depended on a graft culture that could disappear overnight.” China now has a huge surplus of fine Bordeaux wine, which, Mustacich is quoted as saying, “threatens a glut that can disrupt any number of established markets.”
For more information, check out this Telegraph article, “Investing in Wine: Seven Things You Need to Know.” It’s a primer on personal wine investment, but it also (yes, inevitably) addresses China’s influence on the global wine market. It includes this interesting tidbit on why Chinese culture may have a hand in further entrenching red wine over white as the choice of most investors: “The Chinese have acquired a taste for red wine — in part due to their new urban affluence, and also because of their fondness for a lucky color (interestingly white is associated with death and funerals, and therefore not as popular).” For a look at how China’s recent stock turmoil has affected the Bordeaux market, read this piece from NBCNews.com.
British Expat Jailed for Making Wine
While fine wine is associated with wealth and sophistication in many cultures, some countries ban the sale and consumption of alcohol. And expats accustomed to an evening glass of wine need to be mindful of target-country drinking laws and customs. One excellent resource for newly assigned expats is the US Department of State’s travel.state.gov website. You can use it to research the laws and customs of virtually any country. Here’s what the site tells us, for example, about Saudi Arabia’s regulations on alcohol: “Penalties for … consumption of alcohol or illegal drugs in Saudi Arabia are severe. Convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences, heavy fines, public floggings, and/or deportation.”
An October article in BBC.com attests to the reality of that warning. It tells the story of Karl Andree, a 74-year-old Brit who spent over a year in a Saudi prison for possessing homemade wine. Andree had also been sentenced to one of those “public floggings” mentioned above, but authorities spared him “because of his age and ill-health.”
So far, so clear — don’t drink booze in Saudi Arabia. Only, the article goes on to explain that the local customs there are, as in so many other countries, not necessarily perfectly aligned with local law. A former expat quoted in the article notes that Westerners in Saudi Arabia cluster together in “compounds,” where producing homemade alcohol is common. But, he adds, “The big thing with brewing was never to sell it, as that was normally when the problems happened.” And he claims that expats aren’t the only drinkers in-country: “There is quite a drinking culture with the Saudis themselves. Most of the guys that I socialize with have stocks of Jack Daniels and other booze, as well as buying stuff that some of the expats brew.”
That may be the case. But the possibility of getting 360 lashes in the public square followed by a year-long stint in jail for drinking homebrew would be sufficient to keep me on tea and soda water until my flight home.
Expat Drinking in General and “Marting” in South Korea
For a good examination of the culture of expat drinking in general, check out this Wall Street Journal EXPAT blog post. It explains that in many countries, including Muslim ones, expat drinking is rampant. For some expats, the risks of alcoholism while on assignment may be significantly greater than while in the home country. One expat quoted says, “Drinking is embedded in the expat culture, because if you think of the social activities that take place abroad, if you pull the alcohol away they wouldn’t work. People say it’s a social lubricant, but sometimes it’s also social glue.”
The post also explains how expats’ “trailing spouses,” who sometimes struggle to find meaningful work in the host country, can also be at higher risk for alcoholism. Here’s a description of one trailing spouse’s experience: “Her unhappiness with her work life, combined with the daily stresses of life in Cairo — which, for women, can include daily sexual harassment on the streets — led her to begin smoking again and to drink much more than was normal for her.”
But enough for now on the hazards of alcohol. It is after all the holiday season, and drinking in moderation (and occasionally excessively) has its charms for most of us. This article — which originally appeared in the Canada version of Vice, so don’t read it aloud to the kids — describes how expats in South Korea are accustomed to buying beers and other booze from convenience stores, or “marts,” and drinking outside those stores, sitting on plastic lawn furniture on the sidewalk. The practice is so common among expats there that they’ve given it a name: “marting.”
One reason for the popularity of marting is that it’s cheaper than drinking at a bar in South Korea, particularly a bar with outdoor seating. Also, sitting on the sidewalk makes for good people-watching and, for some expats, evokes memories of living at home. Here’s one young expat — an English teacher — on the merits of marting: “I like being outside and there's not really a lot of options when it comes to relaxing, drinking, hanging out with your friends outside in Korea. … Being from Canada, the highlight of my summer used to be drinking with my friends outside on a patio. And it’s really nice to be able to mart here in Korea, because I miss that.”