Sunday, July 08, 2012

Red Violin of Puerh

I spent some lovely stretches on my swing finally catching upon summer reading.  The most enjoyable of the batch was the "Billionaire's Vinegar" - a non-fiction mystery about the scandal filled world of rare aged wines which was entirely applicable to the similarly murky world of aged pu-erh.   The title comes from a misrouted bottle of a 1787 Lafite supposedly ordered by my FFF Thomas Jefferson. Infamous wine collector Hardy Rodenstock "found" this bottle amongst other wine gems perfectly sealed up within the walls of an undisclosed Paris apartment during demolition.  The Forbes family bought this particular bottle via Christie's for $150,000 and stored it proudly under a toasty halogen light along with their other presidential memorabilia.  An employee with sharp eyes found the shrunken cork floating in the world's most expensive wine.  Forbes had never meant to drink this wine but bought it to own a piece of American history.  But did this wine really belong to Jefferson?  Was this wine even from 1787?

Only if someone would write a pu-erh page turner a la the"Red Violin".  Perhaps it could be about this 1895 imperial golden melon featured in this pu-erh documentary. You may desire to skip straight to the scene starting 7:42).

The author could interweave at least a century of Chinese history from the decline of the Qing all the way to the rampant capitalist China of today. The author could lard the story generously with useful details of puerh manufacture for types like us.  Maybe the author can exploit the inevitable switzeroo  plot device twice, once during the Cultural revolution and then a second time during the pu-erh boom years to multiple black market buyers one of whom could be Russian(or Bulgarian) mafiosi with a Chinese girlfriend.  (Video spoiler alert- were you as crestfallen as I was upon hearing that this golden melon was stored underground and had some "insecticide" issues. After that, I definitely agreed that "we dare not covet the emperor's golden melon."  )

Back to the original book review- the most unfortunate and glaring parallel between the world of aged wine and aged pu-erh revolve around rampant forgery and the suckers who fall for them.  Most commonly it wasn't oenophiles(a.k.a. serious wine drinkers) but rich people with too much money that would pony up for these outrageously priced aged wines to display in a trophy collection. (I also was scratching my head for the proper term for pu-erh lovers- puerhophiles? We have to be very careful with the spelling since "puer" could be mistakenly interpreted in an ancient Greek direction.  A bit dorkier but magnafoliophile is definitely a safer way to go but my latin is completely rusty so if someone could suggest something more elegant.)  

By the time someone does open a bottle and find it undrinkable,  most people don't know enough about aged wines to deem it a fake and may just blame bad storage conditions.  But just suggestion and price tag alone sometimes would convince drinkers the authenticity of a bottle.  Those who knew enough to find themselves had,  they cannot prove conclusively that a wine was fake or it may be too late to catch up with the original perpetrator in a long chain of middle-men spanning the centuries.  According to this book,  even the venerable auction houses Sotheby's and Christies were well aware of fakes exploding in the market place, but they were only too happy to be party to the commissions generated by such a lucrative market. 

For me, one of the most useful nuggets was the lack of a conclusive scientific method to date wines older than 65 years.  Scientists can measure the presence of radioactive compounds to determine that a wine predates the atomic age. Wines after 1945 hold certain levels of decaying tritium or cesium-137 which match against a time curve.  Probably there is a new curve which goes against Chernobyl and now Fukushima. Unfortunately such tests are the foray of hyper-expensive labs; a home Geiger counter simply will not cut it. 


  1. How about Vetufoliaphiles? it's pretty wordy but it means old leaf lovers. :)

    1. Ah- but are all vetufoliaphiles novafoliaphile as well? But not all novafoliaphiles are vetufoliaphiles. :6)

    2. hi, this is peter micic. I enjoy reading your posts very much:-).

      You can check out my blog called 'the tea cloud apprentice' at:

      If you read the 'About you'll see I am also writing a series of crime fiction pieces around Pu'er Tea in late imperial China.


    3. Peter-
      You have teased us! I'd be more than happy to read your crime fiction pieces but I could not find any on your sight though.