Monday, September 7, 2009

Grape Alley, Wine Tourism, and Journey Home

(8/25-26/09) On our last day in Turpan, we were also pleased to be able to visit the famous Grape Alley. This is one of their major tourist attractions, and, after visiting, I agree! You enter through a very large and impressive gate (paying a small fee) and then drive along the river with huge sandstone cliffs on the right side, and charming adobe houses with the colorful painted doors on the left. If you look closely you can see the indoor patios with the grape arbors overhead and small bald children playing. (According to our guide, the Uyghurs believe in shaving the heads of their children until they reach the age of 7. This helps keep them cool in the summer, and prevents the hassle of fighting with kids over brushing their hair – smart!).

Eventually you come to an indoor market with many restaurants covered in grape arbors, and shops selling dried fruits of all types. It is very colorful and quite tempting. From there you enter Grape Alley which is a series of walkways which large overhead grape trellises (Thompson Seedless). These go on for quite a way, and it is very beautiful with dappled sunlight coming through the grapevines; a stream; waterfalls; small shops; ponds; and eventually a wine bar at the far end with some interesting antique wine presses. Unfortunately it is only one winery and they only sell rather expensive glasses (no tastes) at around 40 to 60 RMB each ($6 to $10!). Why they are not selling small 1 ounce tastes – when that is the tradition here – is beyond me? They also should be selling bottles, and doing a refundable tasting fee. Needless to say, we didn’t stop to taste wine.

Instead, we headed to a wonderful Arabic restaurant where you could actually lay down on pillows near the table and look at the grapes overhead. There was a waterfall, and servers dressed in beautiful Uyghurs clothing. We had lamb kabobs, fresh melon and grapes, rice, many small vegetable dishes, and tea. It was very exotic, and once again, I felt like I was in ancient Persia or Arabia, instead of China!

As we finished our day of visiting fascinating tourist sites, Qin told us our presence was requested at a 9-11pm meeting to provide our input on what the region could do to improve its grape and wine industry. When I received the same question about wine tourism, I was ready with an answer.

It seems to me that given the long distance between the 12 wineries; plus some serious infrastructure issues– that the best approach is to establish a XinJiang Wine Education and Tourism Center in Turpan. This reasoning includes the fact that currently more than 400,000 Chinese and Japanese tourists visit this city each year to see the ancient sites and attend the famous Grape Festival. A regional wine center would be an additional tourist attraction for this population. Because of the political unrest, it is not feasible that many Western tourists will visit this region until it is resolved.

Furthermore, the 12 wineries could collaborate in a Xinjiang Wine Region Association and all feature their wines within the one center. This could include educational tours, videos, tastings, blending seminars, a demonstration vineyards etc. More importantly, they could sell wine -- including packaging to take on the airplane. By charging a small fee (10RMB; $2) for a tasting of 5 different wines with a refund of the fee if a bottle is purchased, they could encourage sales. Different tasting flights could be established, e.g. white, red, reserve, etc. at varying pricing schemes. Apparently Loulan has a nice wine tasting center in Urumqi, but as yet there is not a regional wine center – this might help to jumpstart the concept and help to build Xinjiang wine brand recognition.

After our late night conference, the 7 of us headed to the lake bar for one last beer. It was a sweet good-bye, and an even shorter night of sleep. Finally climbing into my rock hard bed around midnight, we receive a wake-up call at 4:30am and climbed on the van to drive back to the Urumqi Airport at 5:10am. Our plane left on time at 9:10am and we were back in Beijing by 12:30pm.

After a 30 minute taxi ride and checking back into the Taiwan Hotel, we had one last celebratory lunch of Peking duck, pork, beef, chicken – and you guessed it – beer! Next a 2 hour power nap; shower; and then back to the airport at 6pm in order to catch my 9pm flight home. A very long day…….but a once in a lifetime incredible trip! I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity, and to have met such fabulous people – especially my travel mates, plus Qin and Demei. This trip will remain one of the highlights of my life.

Turpan’s Colorful Market

(8/25/09) Later in the day, our guide took us in a taxi to the local market in Turpan. It was immensely fascinating with so many bright colors, scents, and textures that it was a feast for the senses. I went with one of the Israeli professors who was a great negotiator and also a professional photographer. The pictures he took of children and old ladies were works of art.

My main goal was to buy some gifts to take home, and so I purchased some beautiful scarves, fabric, and small souvenir items. But then we wandered into the clothing section where there were many Uyghur women sewing clothes on ancient Singer sewing machines – like I learned on when I was very young from my mother. The dresses they were making were fabulous – all with modest high necks, but in bright colors and with very feminine designs. They also made many modest looking “belly-dancing” costumes with gold sequins. I purchased one in green for my daughter.

The prices were good, and they were willing to bargain a little – but not much. My Uyghur guide said to walk away, and then to come back 2 or 3 times. She said that each time the price would be lowered a bit. This seemed to be the case, but it was nothing like the aggressive negotiating in Beijing. Here it was much more subtle.

Equally amazing was all of the fresh fruit, dried snakes coiled in rings; dead lizards; strange native medicine; and wonderful dishes being grilled over open coal fires – including the tempting spicy lamb empanadas; whole grilled chicken; and huge sides of beef. I felt like I had stepped back in time --- and perhaps this was similar to the market during the heyday of the Silk Trail.

The Ancient City of Jiaohe, China

(8/25/09) The third and last day of the conference did not include any translators, so we asked if we could visit some of the local tourist sites. A van and tour guide was kindly provided and all 7 of us climbed aboard to drive the 15 minutes from the hotel to the ancient city of Jiahoe. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and quite amazing. Apparently it is more than 2000 years old.

Perched on a cliff top between two rivers, the ancient and abandoned city was in a perfect location to protect itself from attack. The remains of the buildings show the inhabitants built houses right into the rock and then used mud bricks to form other walls. There were windows and shelves carved into the rock. You climb to the top via a steep walkway, and then can wander around the ruins. All of the signs are in Chinese and Arabic, so it is helpful to have a tour guide.

The most fascinating part for me was the ruins of the ancient Buddhist Monastery. Our guide told us that if we walked around the center stone where the giant Buddha used to sit, that a wish would be granted. So we walked around the stone 3 times in the very hot heat (90F+), and then I made a wish.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Visiting Vineyards and Loulan Winery

(8/24/09) The next day of the conference was a field trip to several table grape vineyards, a raisin and dried fruit processing firm, and Loulan Winery in Shanshan County. They were harvesting the table grapes – primarily Thompson Seedless – using small wicker baskets. It was very charming to witness. I learned a lot about trellising techniques and pruning for table grapes, which are quite different from wine grapes. They were using a low pergola system and the grapes intertwined in the middle. The workers had to stoop quite low to harvest the bunches. It was exhausting to realize that in November, they would have to prune back the vines and then bury everything in the dirt to protect the vines from the harsh winter cold.

We also visited several modern irrigation systems connected to the ancient karezes which pull water from the snow-capped mountains. In the past they had used flood irrigation here, but now they have switched to drip. According to the viticulture professors with us, they are still using too much water and nitrogen (fertilizer) on the vines.

Loulan Winery was the last stop of the day, and is about a 90 minute drive from Turpan. As I was supposed to provide advice on wine tourism for the region, I observed our path carefully and in the first 30 minutes drive from Turpan, I felt hopeful. The highways were brand new and very clean. We passed well-marked tourist attractions such as signs to Grape Alley, the Karezes, the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang, the 1000 Buddha Caves and a camel riding operation. All of these appeared to be excellent additional tourist attractions – plus the landscape was very compelling with beautiful red and yellow rock formations.

Then we entered the mining and petroleum region of Shanshan County and the scenery changed abruptly. The roads were under construction; ugly shanty towns for workers lined the street, as well as garbage in the ditches. The sight and smell of poverty assaulted our senses. As we entered the major town in the region, I noticed they had planted flowers in the middle of the road in an attempt to beautify the area, but it didn’t cover up the poverty.

Arriving at Loulan Winery, we discovered it was a large industrial looking complex that would not be impressive looking to Western tourists. They did have a nice tasting room with a tasting bar, but it was over 90F and I shuddered to see all the wine on the counters in such high heat. When I asked to go to the restroom, I discovered another ancient trough in the floor. No – this wouldn’t work for wine tourism.

The operation tour of the winery was enjoyable, and they had kindly harvested some Riesling grapes (22 brix, 7 acid; 3.8 ph) so that we could see everything working. They brought the grapes in on small tractors and used a sorting table with 4 workers to pull out leaves. The grapes were destemmed and crushed using modern equipment, and then pumped into temperature controlled fermentation tanks. I was also surprised to see large rotary fermentors which they said they used for the red grapes. Total production is 2000 tons (approximately 170,000 cases – quite large). As mentioned previously, they age their reserve cab in 100% new French oak for 12 months. When I asked to see the vineyards, I was told there were a few hectares near the winery, but that the majority were 3 hours away in the Gobi Desert. We never did get to see the vineyard operations of this winery – disappointing.

We had tasted through all of their wines the previous day at the conference center during the breaks. My favorites were the 2006 Loulan Cabernet Sauvignon which had a rich red fruit nose with touches of berry and cassis; moderate tannins; and medium to long finish. However, when I tasted from another bottle later in the day, the wine was not nearly as good – bottle variation? The 2007 Reserve Loulan Cabernet Sauvignon, which we had at the banquet dinner the night before, was also enjoyable, but a bit too young with a slightly tart finish. We also tasted their Dry White, Semi-Sweet White, Chenin Blanc and Dry Red, but I was more impressed with the cabs. Apparently Loulan had won some awards in a London wine competition about 5 years ago, and their new general manager is trying to make this happen again.

Characteristics of Chinese Wines from Xinjiang Region

After tasting over 20 different wines from 4 of the wineries in the Xinjiang region (they only have a total of 12 wineries), I tried to identify the major characteristics. All of the wines were clean and fresh – probably due to organic viticulture, modern winemaking, and little to no oak – thus no bret. The majority have a fruity New World nose, but on the palate are thin with very little concentration/intensity, and no complexity. Most are low alcohol (12.5 to 13%), light to medium-bodied, and have a short to medium length finish. They make nice bulk wine, but I didn’t really find much that could be called great – at this point. I wonder if it is because they are picking the grapes at too low brix and they are not physiologically ripe. It also could be a matter of over-cropping. Furthermore, all of the vineyards are on the flat valley land (like the table grapes). I wonder why they don’t plant some wine vineyards on the hillsides closer to the water source and perhaps more interesting soil?

What is impressive about these wines is their labeling. Almost all of the wines were in very fancy bottles; many with gold engraving. They looked much more expensive than they tasted. I was also very impressed with the wine advertisements in magazines, on billboards, and on TV. Lots of fancy marketing….but perhaps more time and money should be put into viticulture if they are serious about making more prestigious wines and moving away from bulk production.

Wine and Grape Conference in Turpan City, China

(8/23/09) The Turpan portion of the conference started promptly at 9am the next morning in Turpan’s brand new conference center next to our hotel. There was much fanfare with the news media there, many photographers and important government officials. Over 200 people showed up from China’s wine and grape industries, and they actually took a group photo of all of us at one point. There were many speeches with simultaneous translation, and my presentation on the California wine industry and wine tourism seemed well received. Each us of was interviewed for the local television station, and had our photographs taken multiple times. We were made to feel like celebrities.

We sat through more than 10 presentations, and learned much about the local table grape industry. If you include table grapes in the statistics, then China is currently the world’s 3rd largest producer of grapes. However, the Chinese government does not want to expand table grapes, but instead to focus on wine grapes. The Turpan area – even though it is the birthplace of wine in China – is almost all table grapes and raisins. The closest winery – Loulan – is a 90 minute ride from the city (see posting on Loulan Winery). They mentioned again the two important native Chinese grapes – Longyan (Dragon’s Eye) and Shelongzhu (Chinese Cabernet) – but none are grown in this region.

That evening, we had another huge banquet with the largest round table (seating 30 people) and matching lazy susan I have ever seen. I was told later that it took 10 men to set-up the glass lazy susan on the table, and I believe it. The center of the table was filled with a large red rose bouquet, and all of the important dignitaries and their translators sat at our table. The food was amazing of course – with at least 25 different dishes ranging from all types of vegetables, shrimp, fish, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and many other delicacies. One of my favorites was a type of minced lamb empanada with spices – very tasty. I saw it being cooked in the local market a few days later over coals.

Of course, the meal included countless gambay toasts. I smiled when I saw that they had set each place setting with a one ounce pour of red wine, the nasty rice grappa, and a large glass of green tea – what a combo! (See photo above). The wine was actually quite nice, but rather young – a 2007 Loulan Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It had a bright red berry nose; firm tannins; medium-bodied; but a slightly tart finish. We found out later it had been aged 12 months in 100% new French oak. I think that if it had another year of bottle age, it would be a little more elegant and rounded. As we continued to eat dinner, I found myself rather frustrated, however, at only having a one ounce pour. I kept having to wait for the server to refill my glass and wished I could grab the bottle out of his hands and pour a normal size glass of wine to enjoy with the food. Instead it was a stop and start affair.

The other interruption to the meal was the standard gambeys. Each time someone wanted to toast, we all had to stop eating and stand up. We proceeded through about only 8 gambeys (not very many compared to most banquets), and I noticed that many people only took sips, rather than downing their glass. We wondered later if they did this for us Westerners. The meal actually ended rather abruptly with people getting up to leave and saying good-bye. Therefore, since the night was still young, the 7 of us decided to walk down to the lake for a beer. I never did touch my stinky smelling rice grappa. We ended the night relaxing by the beautiful lake with lotus blossoms, fountains, and singing rocks – and drinking beer, because – regretfully for me -- there was no cold white wine.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Enchanting City of Turpan and the Uyghurs

(8/23/09) – I fell in love with the city of Turpan. It seems to be a cross of ancient Arabia and Santa Fe with its Persian looking buildings, mosques, and charming adobe mud brick houses. Turpan is about a 3 hour drive from the Urumqi Airport, and as you approach you are surrounded by stark brown desert and large white windmills. Then the city slowly appears like a mirage in the distance with green trees and the strange looking raisin houses as the first visible objects. The architecture of the raisin houses is ancient; they are rectangular in shape and made from mud bricks which are stacked so that holes are created in the walls. This is to allow air to enter and dry the grapes that are draped on wooden racks inside. These unusual looking buildings surround the outskirts of Turpan.

When you finally enter the city, the boulevards are wide and tree-lined with small canals running down both sides of the roads, with pink roses bordering the sidewalks. Off to the side, you can see acres of green table grapes growing on short pergolas. The modern downtown has new and impressive stone and marble buildings with Arabic design. All the signs are in both Chinese and Arabic. There are beautiful parks with lakes, as well as the colorful local markets. As you move out of downtown, you find yourself lost in time as donkey carts pass pulling women in colorful Arabic dresses and men with long white beards and small caps. This part of the town is filled with small brown adobe houses with brightly painted wooden doors with pictures of flowers, birds, and fruit. Every once in a while you pass a colorful mosque with turrets. It is like something from a book, and completely enchanting.

We ended up having two different female guides during the course of the conference, and both were Uyghurs (pronounced “weger”). Uyghurs are part of the ancient people who first settled in the area in 300 B.C. They are thought to be of either Persian or Turkish decent; as they do not look like the Han Chinese, but there could be some Mongolian mix. They speak Arabic and are Moslem, which they adopted sometime in the mid 800’s as the religion was imported to the area along the Silk Trail.

The two Uyghur girls explained much of the culture to us, and I was fascinated to learn that many of the Uyghurs drink wine. They also do not conform to orthodox Moslem dress of heavy black cloth and face veils. In fact, they seem to go to the opposite extreme, in that they dress in very bright multi-colored silk and wear small colorful hats with gold trim. I was fascinated to learn that this region discovered how to make silk and kept the secret for thousands of years – thus creating the Silk Trail industry – until it accidently leaked out and the Europeans learned how to cultivate the silkworm and grow mulberry trees.

They said that Xinjiang is 60% Uyghur, 14% Han Chinese, with the remainder other mixed ethnicities. It is supposedly the Uyghurs who led the revolt in Urumqi two months ago because they felt they were being mistreated by the Hans. Interesting, the girls told me the Chinese government does allow minorities, such as the Uyghurs, to have 2 children (3 in the villages), rather than the mandatory one child per couple.

Another interesting fact about Turpan is that in the heat of the afternoon, everything seems to shut down – similar to a siesta in Spain. Our lunch break was from 1 to 4pm, and when I tried to go for a walk, I not only nearly melted from the heat, but couldn’t find much open. However, in the cooler evenings, everyone seemed to be on the streets. The lake garden near our hotel was filled with families with children every night – boating and playing on the lake. They also held what appeared to be large line dances, and many people danced late into the night. What an amazing place!

Caveat: In reading back through this posting, it sounds as if I am romanticizing Turpan – and it is possible that I am. However, I really did find this city enchanting. I’m sure it has its dark corners and poverty-stricken neighborhoods similar to those we saw in Heshuo and ShanShan County. At the same time, I’ve seen the same type of small rundown houses along the borders of Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico and the Deep South of the US. The fact that I didn’t see it in Turpan, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Poverty is something that is a sad fact in many parts of the world. What I did find in Turpan, however, was magic in the air….in the architecture, customs, clothing, ancient sites, and the stories of our guides.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Traveling to Turpan City, China – Along the Silk Trail

(8/22/09) The conference continued the next morning, and it was our turn as invited specialists to make recommendations on what the Heshuo Region could do to improve its wine industry. While my colleagues focused on viticulture, I was asked to comment on how they could improve wine tourism and marketing.

Interestingly, wine tourism is one of the five prongs of the government 2015 vision for the area, along with: 1) doubling wine grape production; 2) training more people in viticulture, winemaking and wine hospitality; 3) collaboration with associations and universities; and 4) new product development to match consumer needs. The fact that this area still has many hectares of unused sand/gravel land, as well as water (though we questioned for how long), makes it an ideal place for wine vines. On the positive side, wine grapes require far less water than table grapes and prefer less fertile soil. The government wants to use the more fertile land for other crops, with a focus in Heshuo on tomatoes and chili peppers.

In my comments, I pointed out all of the positives of the region for tourism, as well as the challenges – including a very long distance from airports, infrastructure issues, medical care, lack of boutique wineries, etc. In addition to addressing these issues, I suggested that they begin by focusing on the Chinese tourists who usually come to see Lake Bosten. Except for adventure and eco-tourism travelers, there are very few Westerners who will be able to make the journey to this remote and pristine valley at this time. Furthermore the current political unrest in the area makes it even more unlikely.

We left after a celebratory lunch which included a shot of the grappa-like rice drink. Personally I found the sickly sweet rotting banana/mango smell to be quite off-putting, and it only took one small sip of the burning liquid before I set it back down on the table. However, the rest of the Chinese officials continued to use it to make gambey toasts throughout the lunch. By the time we were done, I became more accepting of the government’s stance to replace the drink with wine – even though it seems like an abuse of wine to me to gulp it.

Around 3pm we all piled back into the van to drive back through the mountains and across a new desert towards the ancient fabled city of Turpan (pronounced Turfan by the local). The journey took 4 hours, and it became much hotter as we approached what the Chinese told us was the 2nd lowest spot on earth after the Dead Sea. Turpan lies in an old lake bed at 500 feet below sea level, and is surrounded by tall snow-capped mountains ranging from 12,000 to 16,000 feet high. It is from these mountains that they receive their water using an ancient and amazing system of “karezes,” which are underground canals with air holes every few hundred yards. This creates an unusual crater formation along the desert floor. The result is that Turpan is an oasis city – one of the oldest along the ancient Silk Trail. It is also the birthplace of wine in China, with ancient residue confirming that vitus vinfera grapes were fermented into wine here more than 2300 years ago.

We checked into the 4-star Turpan Houzhou Hotel with its magnificent marble lobby, and the first thing I did upon reaching my modern room was to take a long shower. It felt so good to be clean again! Dinner was at 8pm -- a Chinese buffet with decent, but not the gourmet food we had been treated to in Heshuo. After dinner, 5 of our group decided to take a walk and see if we could find a bar that could make a cold gin & tonic. With the evening still hovering in the low 90’s F, we were craving something cool. Our hotel only served beer and warm wine, so we wandered around outside to find a lovely park with a man-made lake complete with fountains, boats, and music piped from fake rocks. There were elegant Chinese bridges on the lake and pink lotus blossoms in full bloom. The area was packed with many local families eating at outdoor restaurants and playing cards and drinking in outdoor bars.

We made our way around the lake to the 5-star Tufa Petroleum Hotel where we had been told there was a western bar. The hotel is very magnificent with even more marble than ours, plus a jewelry shop, swimming pool, restaurant, and a small bar tucked away on the 2nd floor. The bartender had to call for help when we ordered a gin and tonic off the menu, but eventually I was served a glass of gin, a can of tonic, a lemon wedge, and most satisfying – a large crystal bucket of ice. It was the only ice I was to receive on the whole trip, and I thought back on it longingly several times after that evening.

On the walk back to our hotel, we decided to bar hop and purchased a Chinese beer for only $1.30 at one of the sidewalk cafes. We then relaxed and watched kids playing on boats and people dancing in the outdoor pavilion. It was 11:30 on a Saturday night, and Turfan was hopping! Eventually, I made it to bed and discovered it was extremely hard and uncomfortable – but at least I had a hot shower.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lake Bosten in Xinjiang Region, China

(8/21/09) Later in the day we visited Lake Bosten which is a beautiful expanse of water, but quite low – perhaps due to global warming, high temperature, or overuse of water. The very nice (and empty) hotels that surrounded it were rather far from the water’s edge. You could tell that in the past the hotels probably were much closer to the water than the large expanse of grey sandy beach that separated them from the lake’s edge. We walked down to the shore where a few lone people were wading in the shallow lake. Umbrellas, tables, and boats were scattered around the sand, and you could tell it was once a thriving tourist area.

We were informed that the recession and swine flu had cut down on tourism for the past 2 years, and the beautiful new hotels and restaurants were almost empty. All of the hotels were painted in bright pastel colors – pink, light blue, yellow, etc – and each room had its own air-conditioning unit with elaborate rococo design decorating the buildings. Unfortunately the roads to the lake were very bumpy – quite unlike the very new and modern freeways we drove from Urumqi through the mountains.

Near the edge of Lake Bosten, a small group of locals was grilling fish over an open BBQ pit to sell to tourists. We took a group photo by the lake, and I felt rather sad that in the height of summer this region was currently so bereft of visitors to enjoy the lake. As the Canadian wine writer who lived in Beijing commented, it was rare to find such a lovely beach in China so empty. Most beaches are so crowded there is barely room to walk.

That evening jet-lag caught up with me, and I begged off going to another massive dinner banquet. Instead I sat in my room and watched the sunset over the tall snow-capped mountains and enjoyed 2 glasses of the 2006 Reserve Merlot from Aromatic Gardens. They had kindly left 6 bottles of local wines in our room to sample. As this was my favorite from the morning’s tasting, I opened it up – and it was even better. Perhaps it was the fact that I finally had time to relax after long hours of travel and discussion. Perhaps it was the setting sun, the peace and beauty of the region, the classical music playing on my MP3, and the local peach and airplane granola bar that I paired it with for dinner…... Afterwards I slept solidly for 10 hours, and was not in the least dismayed to discover the next morning from my colleagues that all I had missed the evening before at dinner was even more slugging back gambay toasts. Instead I had enjoyed some beautiful Chinese wine…and fell in love with this remote unspoiled region of Xinjiang.