The horrifying rumor of people adding coke to expensive wine (most famously, Chateau Lafite) in China is true. Chinese culture puts an emphasis on displaying status and prestige; appearance is often everything. Often that prestige is propped up like a house of cards from parading imitations of brands like Gucci, Mont Blanc and Rolex. So whenever middle managers host a banquet for family, friends, bosses and subordinates, they make sure that bottles of famous, expensive wines like Chateau Lafite, Mouton and Petrus are on the tables. During dinner a Chinese wine drinker will pour him or herself a hefty glass of expensive Bordeaux, and then…add Coke, Sprite or lemonade. This is very hard to wrap one’s mind around, especially those of us who enjoy our treasured bottles of wine served “neat.”
I remember reading an article in the New Yorker a few years ago discussing how Chinese wine drinkers were fond of mixing wine with soft drinks, relating it to a popular Chinese saying, “Red wine and Sprite — the more you drink, the sweeter you’ll be.” (Unfortunately, this article isn’t available online.) Just for the record, I don’t support that saying, unless of course we are at some kind of dive bar in Spain sipping on sangria or calimochos. I will note that this habit in China is waning among affluent drinkers; however, it is still quite common during government/Communist party functions, business dinners, and family gatherings.
Looking at this cultural process from the opposite end, I suppose we westerners also commit dining faux pas that make the locals here cringe. Proper etiquette is very important in Chinese culture, especially when conducting business or dining in the midst of high-ranking officials or guests. I will never forget first time I was introduced to raw silk worms. They are considered a delicacy in the north of China and are only available during certain periods of the year. My parents’ colleagues had invited us to their home and were so proud to offer these critters during the meal. I remember gagging while they shoved the scrambled-egg-like textured worm in my mouth, positive that this creature was not going to make it down the pipes. Needless to say, I had not only embarrassed our host but also my family. Attempting to redeem myself, I asked for some chili and soy sauce to put on the worms (so I could distract myself from the strange odor and gooey texture). This only made things worse. I not only gagged at the table but I also insulted our Chinese “Granny’s” cooking, which is not a good thing in any culture.
When asking my Chinese colleagues about why they add coke and mixers to expensive wine, I would always get the same response: they say, “because it tastes better.” I couldn’t really argue with them after thinking back on my worm incident; it is really a matter of perception and what tastes and flavors one is raised on. With time, more and more people in China have developed the taste for and better appreciation of the nuances of wine, and these people have come to discover that they do not need to add anything other than enjoyment to the experience. As in most adult pursuits, wine drinking and appreciation starts somewhere, whether it be a wine from a box or grand cru, and progresses from there. My first wine experienced was most definitely not Lafite, Petrus or DRC, but I do remember the joys of developing my palate and finally reaching the pinnacle of “fine wines.” Upon reflection, I choose not to be appalled; I choose to encourage everyone to enjoy their own journey, however it is they find their way.