In A Decent Bottle of Wine in China, author Chris Ruffle recounts his foolhardy efforts to set up a vineyard and build a replica Scottish castle in Shandong. This is not as crazy as it might sound, since Shandong was arguably the home of the modern Chinese booze industry – a former German colony that saw the first lines of grapes planted to make the usual acrid Riesling, as well as the site of the Tsingtao brewery. Ruffle decides to get in on the game, naming his company Treaty Port Wines with a certain degree of tactless cheek. His is by no means the first book to grapple with doing business in China – Tim Clissold has twice sobbed into his typewriter on such matters, and then there’s Paul Midler’s horrifying Poorly Made in China, for starters – but the wine trade brings with it unique issues of classification, husbandry and supply, not the least the government’s insistence that it is not “farming”, but “industry”.
Ruffle is no bumbling idiot or starry-eyed dreamer. He has already successfully restored a real Scottish castle, inadvertently becoming a baron along the way, so has a head start on sourcing architects and materials. He is a master strategist, thinking ahead not only about access roads and transport links, but also about the nature of his customers – the castle is there as a branding exercise, and because he knows the biggest chance of the Chinese spending big money is if they are in a wedding party, and he’s as interested in providing the view, the food and the roof over their heads.
Ruffle is a true money man – an investment capitalist with an eye for the bottom line and a smart drive to understand where his customers’ money is going. This being China, the usual troubles of any new business are compounded by additional hassles, which create, as the Chinese say, “frost on top of snow.” Ruffle’s agonies include inclement weather, corrupt officials and workshy staff. Although he sometimes leaves his tormenters anonymous, there are occasions where he bluntly names the names behind incompetences and betrayals. This, of course, only makes the book more fun, particularly when he reveals the blatant grade-inflation of the Shandong authorities, who talk up his investment almost tenfold in their official reports. As Ruffle observes, it’s this disruption between industry on the ground and officialdom’s appraisal of it that makes investment in China such a volatile enterprise. He captures this reality gap with his account of landing in a private jet at Shanghai airport – oh, it’s ever so swish, except one’s plane has been parked so far from the terminal that getting there requires a 30-minute ride across the tarmac in a ramshackle minibus.
Ruffle tries to do right by the local farmers, only to discover that they have been offered the merest fraction of the sum he handed over to the authorities to buy up their land. Some play the system by planting apple trees on their plots. These three-inch saplings transform their cabbage plots overnight into “orchards” and thereby increase their resale value. On several occasions, Ruffle loans money to grasping employees who then skip town, and he is even scammed by men who pretend to be buying an entire truckload of wine for the People’s Liberation Army, merely to get a free meal out of him.
Although Ruffle presents himself as a gruff and exasperated Yorkshireman shouting at yokels in flipflops, he has a degree in Chinese from Oxford. They don’t just hand those out with packets of cornflakes, putting him further ahead of the competition when it comes to getting things done. But as numerous slamming doors and maddened resignations imply, Ruffle’s plan is regarded by many of his underlings and professional advisers (and occasionally by Mrs Ruffle) as a quixotic money pit.
Despite such misgivings, he is an admirable salesman for capitalism. As he makes clear, but could have perhaps even made clearer, his nutty scheme for putting a Scottish castle in eastern China not only creates a slew of jobs for the population, but encourages the government to improve local amenities. His frankly blind faith in the quality of the soil lures the Lafite corporation to set up its own vineyard next door, and several of his disgruntled ex-employees are not quite so disgruntled that they don’t attempt to ape his project with vineyards of their own. Graciously, Ruffle does not regard them as competition, understanding that a cluster of rival vineyards is more likely to attract longer-term tourism. This, of course, brings problems of its own, such as the threat that some latecomer with no taste will ruin the valley by putting up a shopping mall on the next ridge. But it also brings economies of scale, with the rival vintners lending each other plant and machinery to get the best out of their crops.
Ruffle’s tenses waver from past to present, betraying the book’s origin as an occasional diary – halfway through, we see him having the idea to repurpose it as a book to promote his vineyard, which is honest at least. But like many novice authors, Ruffle has not quite worked out who his readership is. There are several chapters seemingly missing, sometimes out of modesty, sometimes out of discretion, sometimes out of lack of editorial foresight. It’s unclear at the start if Ruffle even knows anything about wine – it’s not until the closing chapters that he describes the industrial process in any detail, and only then reveals his numerous research trips to more established vineyards. Some chapters read like a business report; others like a sump of documents; still others like a Christmas round-robin, name-dropping a bunch of people that the reader stands no chance of knowing. There are odd cul de sacs, such as the full text of a visiting intern’s testimony, along with the suggestion that all was not as reported, but no further details.
As Ruffle notes himself, all land in China is owned by the state, “so what you are buying is only the right to use the land for a specific period of time: residential land for seventy years, industrial for fifty years and agricultural thirty years. No one knows what will happen at the end of the specified periods, but if there is not some ability to roll-over ownership, I guess there will be another revolution.” I was ready to pick up a banner and a brick myself by the end, when he finally glimpses success, only to be kneecapped by the very same institutions he has been struggling against.
In 2013, new government austerity initiatives deliver a savage blow to the gift-giving and booze-drinking market that Ruffle hopes to supply. Meanwhile, the authorities who have thus far only seemed to express an interest in back-slapping and glad-handing, suddenly come up with a bunch of tagalong schemes that seem destined to ruin Ruffle’s venture even as they profess to help it. There is a half-hearted effort to build a Taoist temple nearby, which gets its own eyesore access road, even though it is never finished. Ruffle’s efforts for the valley are eventually rewarded with the news that the government plans to drive a motorway right through the middle of it, compulsorily purchasing back large tracts of the vineyards, and sullying the carefully managed view.
Ever the disarming Oxbridge charmer, Ruffle does not let his anger show, although his quoting of a Czech proverb makes his feelings plain. “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.”
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.