Jul 23, 2012

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Pfeiffer Winery: The China Connection

Robin and Danuta Pfeiffer

“Ghan Bei! Ghan Bei!”  A term I’ve never heard before is one I recently learned from Danuta Pfeiffer. Danuta and her husband, Robin Pfeiffer, own Pfeiffer Winery which is located in the southern Willamette Valley in Junction City, Oregon. Theirs is a fascinating story – starting out as a sheep farm and chicken ranch and later evolving into a world-class winery with unparalleled terroir for growing Pinot Noir, Robin and Danuta are proud of what they’ve built, and it clearly shows in every aspect of their vineyards, winery, wine and relationship.

Because I’m a fan of Pfeiffer Winery on Facebook, and I receive their posts on my news feed, I knew the Pfeiffers had gone on a trip to China. Pictures of Danuta and Robin drinking their Pinot Noir on the Great Wall of China had certainly caught my attention, and I was thrilled when Danuta asked me to meet with her so I could learn more about their adventures in China. Assuming they had traveled to the Far East for pleasure, I sat down with Danuta ready to hear all about their touristic sightings; however, I quickly learned their trip to China was all business – with a little fun on the side, of course.

Pfeiffer Winery Tasting Room

The Chinese term ‘Ghan Bei’ means to ‘dry the cup‘, but it’s also used  in the same way we use the term, cheers. The Pfeiffers gained knowledge of this term the evening of their arrival to China, as they sat down for dinner with their new business partner, a well-known Chinese entrepreneur, and a group of his colleagues. The Pfeiffer’s assumed the glasses on the table that somewhat resembled wine glasses were, well, for wine. She and Robin were somewhat startled when the wine glasses were filled with 90 proof alcohol, and lifted in a toast while shouting, “Ghan Bei!” Everyone literally dried the cup as they drank down their 90 proof alcohol as if it were a glass of chilled water on a hot summer day. They were quick to learn about alcohol consumption in China: it’s consumed for one reason – to get drunk.

The Pfeiffers enjoy a glass of their 07 Blue Dot Reserve Pinot Noir on the Great Wall of China

What brought the Pfeiffers to China was a visitor to the Pfeiffer tasting room earlier in the year – a young Chinese entrepreneur was introduced to the Pfeiffer’s through the Eugene Chamber of Commerce. This entrepreneur was on a mission to find a high end Willamette Valley winery that could help him introduce top-notch wine to the elite in China, all through several exclusive, aristocratic wine clubs.  Out of all the Oregon wineries that this young entrepreneur visited, he clicked with Robin and Danuta, and during his third visit to their winery, he asked them to join him in his mission. Without knowing what their challenge wholly involved, yet intrigued enough to say yes, the Pfeiffer’s accepted his invitation to join him. Through these elite wine clubs, the Pfeiffers plan to introduce the Chinese to the culture of drinking and appreciating wine.

After that first dinner, the Pfeiffers learned that in the Chinese culture, there is not much time to wind down and relax. Students study twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Their bicycles are used as a mode of transportation, not for the joy of exercising – they don’t have soccer or tennis or sports – everything they do is focused on their studies and their work. So, the two times when the Chinese relax are when they sit down for tea or when they sit down in a dinner setting. During the dinner setting is where “Ghan Bei” becomes a popular term and people let loose while downing  90 proof shots, or as Robin and Danuta witnessed, gulped down $50 dollar bottles of wine straight from the bottle.

Why is there a stuffed horse in this tasting room? We may never know…

One of their excursions with the entrepreneur was to the World of Wine Walk, a street in one of China’s major cities named Quingdao (pronounced Ching-dow), which was lined with tasting rooms featuring a different winery in each shop from different regions around the world. What sounded like an exciting wine tasting side tour, actually turned out to be more of a learning experience. All but one of the ‘tasting rooms’ had nothing to physically taste – the bottles of wine were behind locked glass cases, under bright, hot lights. Knowing that wine should be stored in a cool dark place, Robin and Danuta knew immediately that the quality of the wine was being compromised. Some of the shops were very elaborate, with marble floors and counter tops, but the staff was unable to assist them with any of the products. At one particular shop, where a stuffed horse with an actual saddle that shoppers could sit on (still can’t figure out the correlation with that one), did have a bottle of wine open. Robin and Danuta were so excited, they asked a staff member to pour them a taste. Baffled by their request, the staff person picked up two used glasses that were on the counter, poured in some wine and handed the glasses to Robin and Danuta. Much to their dismay, the wine had been open for so long it had turned to vinegar – literally. It was undrinkable, and they were forced to spit it out. Unfortunately, at each of the shops they visited, the employees knew nothing about the wine, and they weren’t ever able to purchase or sample any of them, except for the sample of the wine gone vinegar. This excursion was assurance of the feat they face with their mission, but it’s a mission the Pfeiffers are glad to take on, and they’re taking it on with pride.

What wine pairs best with fried cicadas?

Some of their other adventures in China included a walk, or should I say hike, along the Great Wall of China, where Robin and Danuta opened up a special bottle of their own 2007 Blue Dot Reserve Pinot Noir, the same Pinot that was served at President Obama’s pre-inaugural dinner. The Pfeiffer’s celebrated atop the Great Wall of China while sipping their own Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, how cool is that?! Another adventure was all about the food they were served during one of their many hosted dinners. The dining room was elaborately decorated, tables were eloquently set as if set for royalty, and the Whole Fish, Pig Face and Fried Cicadas were served up as if they were everyday meals. Although Danuta wasn’t able to eat most of what was served, Robin was brave and even tried the Cicadas! In spite of the unusual fare, Robin and Danuta were amazed by the hospitality and graciousness of the Chinese people, and greatly enjoyed their dining experiences.

Getting back to business, the plan is to build two or three of these high end wine clubs in the sophisticated city of Suzhou, which is actually the sister city to Portland, Oregon. Suzhou is considered the Venice of  China because of it’s many canals and waterways, and has an incredibly rich history dating back to 514 BC. Because of it’s beauty, population and sophistication, Suzhou is the perfect city to introduce the exclusive wine clubs. When these wine clubs are open and ready for business, which will take the Pfeiffers back to China every few months to train, they will exclusively feature three of the Pfeiffer wines; most likely, the Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and an entry level wine like Muscat. Further down the road, other high end wines at different price points will be introduced, but the Pfeiffers will have exclusivity during training and opening along with a continuing presence at the clubs. The focus will be to teach the staff of these wine clubs to store, serve and drink wine appropriately. The staff will also learn how to teach the exclusive members of the clubs how to appreciate and consume wine. Although exclusive clubs of any sort in China have always been reserved for the men, Danuta insists that the men include their wives.

Suzhou, China

A lot remains to be seen, including whether or not the men will indeed bring their wives with them to these elite wine clubs. The Pfeiffers are enthused about teaching the Chinese to relax and enjoy wine, instead of drinking it fast and hard. It’s perfectly fine to shout, “Ghan Bei,” but sipping and enjoying the wine after a clink of the glasses is much more rewarding.

This will be my first on-going piece, and I’m eager to follow the Pfeiffer’s adventures as they introduce the wine culture, along with their fabulous Willamette Valley wines, to China. It will be interesting to learn of their obstacles and accomplishments along the way, and I look forward to sharing the continuation of their story.

“All wine has a story, that’s what makes wine, wine. Wine is personality driven, and if you have personalities that can talk about their wine with love, passion and a story that carries with it some kind of a legacy, you’ve got a great wine. “ ~ Danuta Pfeiffer

Ghan Bei!