Dec 02 2009
The New Yorker (Nov 23, 2009): p60
~ . ~
Donald St. Pierre, Sr., founded A.S.C. Fine Wines in Beijing in 1996, in partnership with his son, Donald St. Pierre, Jr., whom everyone calls Don, Jr. The St. Pierres were not winemakers or sommeliers. The elder St. Pierre, who had spent his early years in the automobile business, in Detroit and Beijing and elsewhere, was more of a “hot-dog-and-bourbon type,” as a former colleague put it. But they knew sales. In 1989, four years after St. Pierre arrived in the country, Jim Mann, a former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, pronounced him “probably the single best-known businessman working in China.” Over the years, the St. Pierres had sold, or considered selling, baby products, gas masks, photocopiers, golf gloves, scrap metal, lingerie, sugar, pistachios, and Chinese and Russian ammunition.
When the St. Pierres began importing wine, after buying a Hong Kong shelf company called Asia Solutions Corporation, they also created a product of their own. The family was Canadian by birth, but St. Pierre figured, “God damn, let’s use our French name.” Chateau St. Pierre was California bulk red wine, bottled at a factory in Beijing. It bore a label with the stencilled image of a chateau, which the importers had copied from a coffee-table book. No bottle cost more than forty-five yuan–less than six dollars at the time.
Much of what St. Pierre knew about the wine business had been learned from drinking. He was a dedicated student in that respect, but shortly after putting his life savings into the wine business he found that he was nearly broke. “This great idea that we had wasn’t looking too great,” Don, Jr., said. The Chinese people were scarcely interested in wine.
At one point, St. Pierre ordered a bottle at a restaurant in Beijing and watched a huddle of wait staff struggle to open it with a church key. (The St. Pierres responded by giving away corkscrews.) Two years later, when the St. Pierres flew to Bordeaux for Vinexpo, the wine world’s largest trade fair, nobody paid much attention to them.
Parts of China sprawl across the forty-fifth parallel, the fertile latitude that crosses Bordeaux, and the country has produced small quantities of grape wine since the Han dynasty, but wine was never popular. Many Chinese called it “red liquor,” if only to distinguish it from “white liquor,” or baijiu, the ferocious grain alcohol that was far more prevalent. For decades, enormous state-run industrial wineries had blended grapes with chemicals and coloring, and the resulting plonk turned off the few Chinese drinkers who dared to try it.
But, as China opened up, the prospects for wine improved. Agricultural authorities were trying to wean the country from baijiu, so that the grain could be used for food instead of alcohol; in 1996, the State Council banned the consumption of baijiu at ministry banquets. China was also preparing to enter the World Trade Organization, which would require reductions on import duties and therefore lower the price of wine from abroad.
Chinese drinkers had a long tradition of diluting wine with soft drinks. (A popular saying held: “Red wine and Sprite–the more you drink, the sweeter you’ll be.”) But that practice was regarded as uncouth among younger drinkers, and some in the foreign-wine world began to wonder if China’s growing middle class might turn to wine for an air of sophistication, much the way that Americans had picked up wine in the sixties, when advertising and jet travel made it an object of aspirational spending.
In late 1998, St. Pierre came up with an idea: a cardboard gift set for Chinese New Year containing two bottles of wine and a pair of ladies’ underwear visible through a cellophane window. His Chinese staff told him that China wasn’t ready for that, and suggested a Western necktie instead. Ties were growing in popularity, and St. Pierre negotiated a deal with a factory to produce them for sixty cents each. He put together two hundred wine-and-tie gift boxes and sent them to PriceSmart, a big-box discounter in Beijing and Shanghai. “The first day they put them out–bang! Shit, they’re all gone,” he recalled. “How about that?”
Before the season was over, A.S.C. had sold two hundred thousand gift boxes. The following year, the promotion was repeated, and the year after that. “It saved the goddam business,” St. Pierre says.
At sixty-eight, St. Pierre has blond gray hair and a beard, and a gravelly voice rasped by smoking. He is fond of expensive suits and wide neckties, a chesty style that evokes the heyday of Lee Iacocca, who was once his boss. St. Pierre belongs to a generation and class in which a man would rather not light his own cigarette if a waitress will do it in return for a wink. “He and my mother never saved a penny,” Don, Jr., told me. “I can’t imagine how many times they were close to not being able to have enough money to pay for my school. It wasn’t like he was out gambling. He was spending money on us. He was enjoying life. He’s one of those guys that, if he’s got a thousand dollars in his pocket, he feels like a prince, and he’ll go out and spend it on a good dinner.”
On many nights, St. Pierre can be found on the second stool from the left at the bar of the Capital Club, a members-only establishment that caters to both the Chinese and foreigners, on the fiftieth floor of a skyscraper with broad, unimpeded views of Beijing. A few years ago, when he discovered a woman named Zhu Wen sitting in his customary spot, his first words to her were “I’m Don St. Pierre. Ask anybody. That’s my seat.” She told him to get lost. Two years later, he married her. (A previous marriage, of thirty-nine years, had ended in 2004.)
When I joined St. Pierre at the club recently, nearly everyone who passed by stopped to greet him. “Look at that asshole!” he replied with a smile, his version of high praise. St. Pierre’s comfort with confrontation extends to his only hobby: golf. At a charity golf tournament in 1997, St. Pierre accused a rival foursome of cheating. The team was composed of senior Communist Party officials, including a high-ranking military general and the chairman of a large arms manufacturer. St. Pierre’s friends urged him to back off, but not before St. Pierre had waved his finger and said, “You fuck off. You’re a cheater!” (His protests persuaded tournament officials to give his team a share of the winnings.) I asked St. Pierre if he thought that he had ever been too aggressive. He frowned. “What does that mean? ‘Too aggressive.’ Do you like to kill your competitors or don’t you?”
His tactics have made A.S.C. China’s largest wine importer, with annual revenues of more than seventy million dollars. Jancis Robinson, a prominent wine critic in London, wrote that the St. Pierres have attained “a position in the Chinese wine scene similar to that of the Gallos in the U.S.”
“A.S.C. has really introduced wine into China,” Patricio de la Fuente Saez, a rival importer, told me. “I think they’re definitely the pioneers. They’ve done an amazing job. Without A.S.C., probably half the people here wouldn’t be drinking wine.”
In 1998, Gernot Langes-Swarovski, the scion of the Austrian crystal empire, bought a forty-nine-per-cent stake in the company, and A.S.C. used the investment to expand. By 2001, it had turned its first profit. (Langes-Swarovski later increased his share to sixty-three per cent.)
The St. Pierres leveraged their size and reach to lure wine labels away from their rivals. Wine importers proliferated–there are now more than a thousand–and before long A.S.C. had signed deals with more than a hundred suppliers. The competition became so intense that, at times, it took on almost military tones: whenever possible, A.S.C. staffers gathered intelligence on suspicious ships crossing the Pacific, in order to detect cases of “paralleling,” in which a vender would buy a load of wine abroad and send it into China to undercut the local importer.
From 2004 to 2008, A.S.C.’s revenue increased an average of forty-six per cent each year. The business was growing so fast that Campbell Thompson, a marketing director at the time, said, “A big part of the job was making sure the wheels didn’t fall off.” In 2007, the St. Pierres bought more bottles of Chateau Latour, one of the most sought-after Bordeaux wines, than anyone else in the world.
Then, on March 6, 2008, the Smuggling Prevention Department of the Chinese Customs Service launched an investigation of wine importers on suspicion of “falsifying prices.” Agents began visiting wine companies to sift through years’ worth of paperwork for evidence that importers were underdeclaring the value of wines to escape customs duties.
A.S.C. Fine Wines, which had moved its headquarters to Shanghai, was one of the targets. In recent years, Don, Jr., a forty-two-year-old father of two, had taken over the company’s daily operations as the chief executive. He was partial to tailored suits, horn-rimmed glasses, and, occasionally, bright-red pants. He had met his wife, Monica Xu, a Shanghai native, at a wine event, and their children were growing up in a bilingual home. Compared with his father, he was understated, but that only masked his intensity. “I’ve never met anybody who’s so driven,” Joel Thevoz, a friend from their student days at George Washington University, told me. Don, Jr., kept an office that was fastidiously neat and festive, arrayed with stemware and expensive bottles of wine. He was usually there by eight, but he happened to be away the day the customs authorities arrived. Shortly after their visit, they called him to ask that he come in for questioning. When he returned to Shanghai, two days later, he asked his driver to deliver him to the customs office. From there, he was taken to the Shanghai Detention Center and placed in a cell with five other detainees: three from China, one from Hong Kong, one from Nigeria. Two were awaiting trial for violent crimes. The detainees slept on mattresses on the floor. Except for occasional laps in an exercise pen, they remained in the cell around the clock. Don, Jr., was desperate to see a lawyer, but, when the time came, the visit was dispiriting. “He’s telling me the law, and I’m thinking to myself, Well, first, I don’t think I really understand it, and, second, what I understand doesn’t sound very good,” he recalled. “I left that meeting feeling much, much worse.”
St. Pierre quickly began contacting influential friends to help resolve the case. He wrote a public letter to Jancis Robinson, saying, of his son, “I have believable assurances he will be back in his office in a few days and this saga will go the way of many other China sagas I have endured in my 22 years here. FORGOTTEN.”
Donald St. Pierre was born on an island in the Ottawa River, on a farm that had no electricity, heat, or running water. In winter, the family slept in the kitchen to be near the stove. When Don was nine, his father, a pipe fitter, found work in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. Don’s first job was in the mailroom at Ford. At night, he took political-science and economics classes at the University of Windsor, Henry Ford Community College, and elsewhere, but he never obtained a degree. When he was nineteen, he met Patricia Collison, an aspiring flight attendant from Windsor, who had snuck out of a Y.W.C.A. dance and encountered St. Pierre at a party. “He talked about the future more than any of our friends did,” she said. “I had complete faith in him. He just had this self-assurance that if you follow me, and trust me, I’ll take you to places we’ll enjoy.” They married four years later. She worked at Pan Am’s Clipper Club lounge, while he was working his way up at Ford. They had one child, Don, Jr., and in 1976 they moved to Detroit.
By 1982, St. Pierre was a director of supply for international Jeep operations at American Motors, and the company assigned him to Indonesia. “To discover that we were going to be on one of seventeen thousand islands was kind of staggering,” Patricia said. In Jakarta, Don, Jr., who was in high school, fell in love with the mythology of adventure in Asia; he adored “Tai-Pan,” the novel by James Clavell, about the nineteenth-century exploits of a Hong Kong trader who was never armed with less than a “knife in the crease of his back and another in his right boot.” In college, Don, Jr., studied Mandarin and talked so much about Clavell’s book that a friend nicknamed him Little Tai-Pan.
Within a few years, St. Pierre was promoted to president of a pioneering joint venture known as Beijing Jeep, which was intended to assemble Jeep Cherokees in China and lead the way to greater trade between China and the United States. But he encountered crippling bureaucratic problems inside Beijing Jeep–mainly, the Chinese government didn’t want to use valuable U.S. dollars to import parts. As Jim Mann later wrote in the book “Beijing Jeep,” St. Pierre became known for airing these problems to the press. When he wrote a letter to Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Premier, warning that the venture was failing, the cadre of the Communist Party that was assigned to Beijing Jeep scolded him. St. Pierre lost his temper. “I’m going to continue to do just what I’m doing!” he yelled, according to Mann’s account. The cadre responded, “You’re lucky you’re not a Chinese, because you’d be in big trouble.”
St. Pierre urged his bosses to play hard, saying, “They can’t afford to let us walk out of here.” He was right; the Chinese negotiators relented. On Chinese television, St. Pierre was shown shaking hands with Zhao, and acquired valuable friendships; Zhu Rongji, an economic official who oversaw Beijing Jeep, was later promoted to Prime Minister.
Some of St. Pierre’s ventures did not end as well. After Beijing Jeep, he spent two years as the president of China Automotive Components Corporation, which had a parent company so dysfunctional that once, during a drunken business trip to Outer Mongolia, a translator cut off a factory manager’s ear. The venture initially lost tens of millions of dollars, as chronicled in “Mr. China,” a memoir by Tim Clissold, another executive. (“One thing was for sure,” Clissold concluded of doing business in China. “If you played by the rules, you were finished.”) St. Pierre’s boss at the time, Jack Perkowski, also wrote a book, in which he declared, “To say that Don was bested in the negotiations by the Chinese is a severe understatement.” (St. Pierre says Perkowski is “full of shit.”) St. Pierre has appeared in at least five books on the history of economic engagement with China.
In the early nineties, with the help of Chinese industrial connections, St. Pierre and his son embarked on a new business: importing Chinese gun parts into the United States, mostly SKS rifle stocks and Makarov pistol accessories. Neither of them had ever shot more than a BB gun, St. Pierre told me, and some of their new associates were “greasier than grease.” “It was a business,” he said. But they soon realized that greater profits lay in ammunition, and they began importing Chinese-made 7.62-mm. rounds for semiautomatic weapons, along with shotgun shells and .22-calibre bullets.
In May, 1995, agents from the F.B.I., the A.T.F., the Customs Service, and other agencies raided the St. Pierres’ warehouse in Santa Clara, California, and seized their entire inventory, accusing them of illegally importing ammunition that had been banned a year earlier–seventy-four million rounds, which a federal agent called “the largest seizure of ammunition ever in the U.S.” Indictments, including, potentially, conspiracy, smuggling, and false entry of merchandise, were expected within days. It was national news–the Oklahoma City bombing had occurred only weeks earlier–and an A.T.F. agent was quoted comparing the St. Pierres’ stockpile to the arsenal of a small country.
The St. Pierres responded to the charges with indignation; the case was “absolutely ridiculous,” Don, Jr., told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. The government had accused them of importing banned Chinese munitions, but the St. Pierres insisted that their goods were Russian, not Chinese. Five weeks later, the authorities dropped the case–”a history-making fiasco,” the San Jose Mercury News called it. The St. Pierres, it turned out, had anticipated the ban on Chinese munitions and switched to Russian sources more than a year before the raid. Even though they were cleared, the shutdown cost them so much business that they decided to try something else. They still had a million and a half dollars to invest, and were eager to import something into China. They considered trading nuts (too crowded); sugar (too crooked); golf clubs (too small). They were poking around the scrap-metal trade when someone mentioned that the wooden posts that hold up grape vines might be manufactured cheaply in China. If we’re going to look at the wine posts, St. Pierre thought, why not look at wine itself? Friends from the automobile industry had connections to wineries in California, Italy, and Australia, and the St. Pierres put together a small catalogue of wines to sell.
In the past few years, whenever the St. Pierres returned to Vinexpo they found themselves in high demand among European winemakers. Wine consumption in Europe had been falling for four decades, as younger generations continued to consume less wine than their parents had. The average French adult drinks forty-three litres of wine each year–roughly a glass a day–down from three glasses per day during the sixties. (Half of all French young people report drinking no wine at all, preferring beer and liquor, or bottled water, soda, and juice.) Similar declines in Italy, Spain, and other countries have left Europe with a vast surplus, known in the trade as “the wine lake” and estimated, in 2006, at a billion and a half litres–the equivalent of four bottles of undrunk wine for every European citizen. As a remedy, the European Union has sponsored a “crisis distillation” program, which processes excess wine into bioethanol and cleaning products, and encourages some farmers to uproot their vines and get out of the business “with dignity,” as the European agriculture commissioner put it.
Selling to China is a more attractive solution. Today, China is the world’s fifth-largest wine consumer, and is gaining on Germany, according to the Wine Institute, in San Francisco. The Chinese still drink mostly Chinese wine, which has improved, in part because in 2003 the government banned thickeners, saccharin, cyclamate, artificial colors, and other additives. Foreign imports make up less than fifteen per cent, but to French winemakers it is “more than an El Dorado,” Frederic Engerer, the president of Chateau Latour, told me. The Bordelais have never quite acclimated to the embrace of distant customers. “In the very beginning of the eighties, there was a huge demand from Texas, and in France we were saying, ‘These Texan people–they don’t know how to drink our wines. They are like barbarians,’ ” Engerer told me. “Then there were the Japanese at the end of the eighties, beginning of the nineties, and they were not even drinking it; they were giving it as gifts. That made us laugh also. Now there are the Chinese.” But today, Engerer said, France cannot afford to be arrogant. “We should be a little more calm about this and say, ‘Thank you for buying something that might not be in your culture,’ ” he said.
While many Americans and Europeans gravitate toward “extreme value” wines that sell for a few dollars a bottle, China is in the thrall of conspicuous consumption. (“In our shops, if we have slow-moving items we raise the price,” one wine importer told me.) Robert Parker–Pa Ke, to his Chinese fans–made his inaugural visit last year, a trip that included a twenty-three-hundred-dollar-a-head dinner atop the Great Wall. The seven-course meal was a black-tie affair; tables were laid out between two ancient stone-and-brick guard towers on the Badaling section of the Wall, a former military outpost that has been refurbished and fitted with a cable car.
One evening not long ago, I joined a dinner event organized for A.S.C. customers in Shanghai, at a restaurant called Exquisite Bocuse, which was decorated with dark-wood furniture, Art Deco stained glass, and Grecian vases. I took a seat at one of several large round tables, across from Bob Miao, a thirty-five-year-old manager in an auto-parts company, who wore glasses and a crewcut. He had stumbled upon wine a decade earlier, he said, when he worked for a French company. Recently, he had become confident in his new hobby, and last spring he put seventy thousand dollars of his savings into wine futures. He hopes that some of it will prove to be a wise investment. “I will drink the rest,” he said, half joking.
The evening was organized as a sommelier competition, intended to celebrate the pairing of Australian wine with Chinese cuisine. Three sommeliers from local restaurants and hotels were being tested on how well they matched Shiraz, Chardonnay, and other wines with dishes like Heavy Rum Soup with Shark Bones and Yang Zhou Boiled Dried Bean Curd with Special Soup. The room grew bustling and jolly, as people egged on the competitors, snapped pictures, and toasted one another with expensive glasses of wine. (Chinese wine drinkers sometimes toast with full glasses downed in a single gulp, a tradition known as ganbei, or “clean cup.”) “In China, people like company,” Miao told me. “Most restaurants are boisterous–people talk loud, laugh loud, and it’s noisy. Westerners who come to China for the first time might feel uneasy. But that might be the same thing for a foreigner who goes to France for the first time and goes to a Michelin two-star restaurant. It’s so quiet!”
Chinese drinkers are especially fond of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of the most expensive Bordeaux estates. (A bottle of 1982 Lafite sells for more than three thousand dollars.) Chinese consumers buy so many bottles of Lafite each year–the estate told me that the exact figure is confidential–that they drive up global prices, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Lafite effect. Chateau Lafite Rothschild recently announced that it is developing a winery in Shandong Province to produce the first “Chinese Grand Cru.” It is in the port city of Penglai, which has adopted the nickname Nava Valley to attract tourists. Lafite is creeping into Chinese pop culture the way that Cristal became the champagne of American hip-hop. On the edge of Beijing, a real-estate developer has constructed a life-size replica of the Lafite chateau that is available for weddings and other events. In the Hong Kong action movie “Young and Dangerous–Part V,” a character tells a Mob boss, “Bring several bottles of ’82 Lafite and call in your prettiest girls!”
Inside the Shanghai Detention Center, the lights stayed on around the clock. In addition to Don, Jr., the authorities had detained Carrie Xuan, an A.S.C. vice-president, in a separate jail.
St. Pierre, meanwhile, hired lawyers and prepared for a vigorous defense. He gathered pictures of himself with Zhu Rongji, the former Prime Minister, and showed them to investigators to emphasize how long he had been doing business in China. He enlisted the help of an old friend, Clark T. Randt, the U.S. Ambassador to China at the time, and the consulate in Shanghai made formal inquiries into Don, Jr.,’s case. But the strategy bordered on counterproductive, St. Pierre told me later: “The customs people told me that if you keep the U.S. government involved you may never see your son again.” (The Shanghai customs office declined to comment on the case.)
The detentions had prompted unflattering commentary about China’s wine trade. Simon Tam, a Hong Kong-based wine consultant, wrote a pair of articles on Jancis Robinson’s Web site describing what he called “common practice by a number of wine importers to systematically undervalue the declared value of wine” by more than fifty per cent. He cited customs records in France which showed that, in 2007, far more wine was exported to China than appeared on Chinese customs records. (St. Pierre wrote a letter to the Web site in which he called the piece a “hit job.”) Like other aspects of China’s emergent economy, the wine trade appeared to have grown too fast for regulators to keep pace. The wine importer estimated that seventy per cent of fine wine in China is smuggled, including what is underdeclared at the border. With so much competition and smuggling driving down prices, he said, “That’s the cheeky thing in the wine business here–if you do everything in the legal way, you can’t be price-competitive.”
On April 8, 2008, twenty-eight days after Don, Jr., was detained, he was released. A.S.C. acknowledged a limited number of undervaluations, he says, and it agreed to pay back-duties and fees totalling 1.8 million yuan–about two hundred and sixty-four thousand dollars, a relatively small sum, given the company’s volume of imports. Don, Jr., was never charged with a crime. He says that A.S.C. made technical mistakes that grew out of the fluctuating values of fine wine and foreign currencies. “We were hedging euros against dollars, and sometimes we did it right and sometimes we did it wrong,” he told me. Carrie Xuan had been released three days earlier. More than a year later, when I asked her about her detention, she wept. She still works at A.S.C., though her sister has begged her to leave the company. She has never told her parents that she was jailed. “They are too old to suffer this,” she said.
The wine investigation widened, and by the end of 2008 it had led to punishment in twenty-nine cases, on wine valued at twenty-five million dollars, according to a report in Legal Daily, a state-run paper. Companies were accused of doctoring invoices and “laundering documents” through Hong Kong, where there are no tariffs on wine imports. The St. Pierres did none of that, Don, Jr., says. But the case was “a wake-up call,” he told me one afternoon at his apartment in Shanghai. “No one sits you down and says, ‘You’ve arrived in China. These are the laws.’ Because people just don’t think they apply to them! And they do now.”
In the months since his release from detention, Don, Jr., has made A.S.C. more of a conventional Chinese company: he hired a chief operating officer who was a former government official with deep contacts and knowledge of the law. For years, foreigners bemoaned the absence of the rule of law while exploiting it. Today, Don, Jr., says, “I think what we went through clearly shows that if you are engaged in business you are subject to the same rules as everybody else.”
Down the block from A.S.C.’s headquarters, the company operates the Wine Residence, a serene, refurbished mansion “for discerning wine lovers.” Members can stow bottles in dark-wood lockers with brass nameplates, in a temperature-controlled cellar. It is open to the public for meals and events that A.S.C. bills as “wine education.” One morning, I enrolled in an intermediate class, and took my seat at a long table set with empty glasses.
The table was surrounded by ten Chinese students, men and women ranging from their twenties through their forties. Some of them had signed up; others worked at expensive restaurants and had been sent by their bosses. Each of us received a stack of books in English and Chinese, and I flipped ahead to a sample test question:
The word “Beerenauslese” on a bottle of German Riesling indicates that the wine is (a) blended from several vineyard sites, (b) sparkling, (c) aged in bottle for a long period before release, (d) made from very ripe grapes.
Translating the full Western culture of wine into Chinese had produced erratic results. Some grapes and regions had been rendered phonetically (Chateau Margaux had been translated, with utilitarian efficiency, as “Ma ge”); others were described idiomatically (“Jiaohuang xin bao”–or “the pontiff’s new fortress”–turned out to be Chateauneuf du Pape).
The classroom carried an air of apprehension. The teacher–a tall man in a short-sleeved white button-down shirt whom we called Teacher Hao–tried to simplify things. “How do you remember Italian names?” he said in Chinese. No one responded. “If it ends in ‘o’ or ‘a,’ it just might be an Italian wine.” My classmates looked pleased. Teacher Hao showed us how to open a screw-top bottle with a discreetly closed fist that would “save face for the host.” “And if you see a label in Chinese,” he advised, “you definitely won’t buy it, because it’s not imported.”
We tasted the Crozes-Hermitage, the Chianti Classico, the Barbaresco, the Tempranillo, the Freixenet, the sherry, and the port, and made a brisk survey of the brandy, whiskey, rum, and tequila. I was not a vigilant spitter, and by midafternoon I was feeling the hour. That was when we learned how to open a champagne bottle. “What’s better–loud or quiet?” Teacher Hao asked.
David, a young maitre d’ with a trendy slab of a haircut, spoke up. “The quieter the better, like the gentle sigh of a beauty,” he said. But the teacher pointed out, “Normally, in a bar they set up sparklers and open it loudly, so that the whole place knows who ordered it, like a show.”
A classmate named Christina Cai stepped forward to open the bottle. She worked as a construction engineer building factories, and she wore khakis and a white safari-style shirt. Her husband, who manufactures dental products, was away on business, but they often drink wine together. (“Wine is alive,” she told me later. “It’s the combination of ideal weather, geography, and labor–just like a building.”) The teacher handed her a bottle of Prosecco and warned her to keep control of the cork. Cai cradled the bottle warily, like a loaded M16, and I began to wonder about the wisdom of letting a lightly soused novice open a champagne bottle in a confined space. “What do I do now?” she asked nervously, and I felt my classmates lean away. “Can I loosen my hands?”
Pop! Cai shrieked, and then giggled. Wine flowed. She pulled out a camera and snapped a picture of the bottle.