On the verge of fail­ure af­ter out­lay­ing 3 mil­lion yuan on a rice win­ery, a bridge res­cues an en­tre­pre­neur and helps pro­tect a lo­cal tra­di­tion

China Daily - - WEEKEND LIFE - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai xu­jun­qian@chi­nadaily.com.cn

A Chi­nese say­ing has it that the bou­quet of a good wine tran­scends the walls of the al­ley in which it is hid­den to at­tract drinkers.” Yu Jian­rong, the founder of Nong­ben Win­ery

If there were just one man who dis­agreed with the sen­ti­ment that good wine sells it­self, it would prob­a­bly be Yu Jian­rong. Fif­teen years ago the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial quit his job at the age of 38 af­ter de­cid­ing to seek his for­tune by mak­ing laobai­jiu, or sticky rice wine. But by 2010 Yu, a na­tive of Chong­ming is­land, north­east of Shang­hai, was still far from re­al­iz­ing his ul­ti­mate goal: to make his home­town spe­cialty as pop­u­lar as China’s na­tional al­co­hol, Moutai, the man­u­fac­turer of which, Kwe­i­chow Moutai, over­took Di­a­geo Plc as the world’s most valu­able liquor com­pany this year.

Just as he was about to give up, af­ter hav­ing spent more than 3 mil­lion yuan ($460,000) of his sav­ings, his for­tunes took a turn for the bet­ter when the Shang­hai Yangtze River Tun­nel and Bridge was com­pleted and opened in 2009.

The world’s largest tun­nel-bridge struc­ture, at al­most 26 kilo­me­ters, in­clud­ing the tun­nel and bridge, has cut the travel time be­tween down­town Shang­hai and the is­land from more than one hour to 20 min­utes. The only way to get to the is­land, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, used to be ferry.

Since 2010, the num­ber of tourists, mostly from Shang­hai for a week­end get­away, vis­it­ing the is­land has dou­bled ev­ery year, the lo­cal tourism bu­reau says, and last year more than 4.9 mil­lion vis­i­tors trav­eled to the is­land, which has a pop­u­la­tion of about 670,000.

“A Chi­nese say­ing has it that the bou­quet of a good wine tran­scends the walls of the al­ley in which it is hid­den to at­tract drinkers,” said Yu, the founder of Nong­ben Win­ery. The name Nong­ben means the ori­gin of agri­cul­ture.

“How­ever, as con­fi­dent as I was about my rice wine, I never ex­pected it to travel across the Yangtze River, which it now does thanks to the bridge.”

Even as the res­i­dents of Shang­hai passed over the only wine that is pro­duced lo­cally in fa­vor of other va­ri­eties such as yel­low rice wine made in Shaox­ing, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, they also con­tin­ued to fa­vor for­eign im­ports such as red wine, some­thing they started do­ing in the 1980s when the coun­try be­gan open­ing up to the world. For many of these drinkers the lo­cal rice wine was old hat.

So dur­ing the 1990s the re­tail price of laobai­jiu dropped to 10 yuan a kilo­gram or less, al­most the same as the price of the rice it is made from.

Chong­ming dis­trict’s gov­ern­ment ar­chives show that be­fore the 1980s the num­ber of fac­to­ries pro­duc­ing laobai­jiu peaked at 50. To­day only five in Chong­ming pro­duce grain­based wine, Yu’s be­ing the only pri­vately owned.

Shi Zhongxiu, a re­searcher with Chong­ming’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural heri-

tage preser­va­tion of­fice, said the ar­ti­sanal skills in mak­ing

laobai­jiu used to be some­thing ev­ery fam­ily on the is­land cher­ished and passed on be­tween gen­er­a­tions. The “in­va­sion of West­ern al­co­hols” has not only di­min­ished the num­ber of drinkers of laobai­jiu, but also “killed the once preva­lent tra­di­tion of mak­ing sticky rice wine ev­ery au­tumn, af­ter the rice har­vest”, Shi said.

In 2009 the mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment des­ig­nated the skill of mak­ing laobai­jiu as an item of Shang­hai’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage that needed preser­va­tion. Later that year the cen­tral gov­ern­ment

listed the wine as one of the coun­try’s Pro­tected Ge­o­graph­i­cal In­di­ca­tion Prod­ucts.

Laobai­jiu, which lit­er­ally means old white wine, is be­lieved to have been in­vented 700 years ago in Chong­ming, about the same pe­riod as Moutai, the wheat-made liquor, was first made.

By mix­ing and brew­ing the lo­cally pro­duced gluti­nous rice with qu, a spe­cial yeast made from Chi­nese herbs for fer­men­ta­tion, the wine fea­tures a dis­tinc­tive sweet taste sim­i­lar to ice wine but a much stronger af­ter­taste close to spir­its, de­spite its low al­co­hol con­tent, usu­ally less than 15 per­cent. “The unique taste of laobai­jiu has made it a hit among both males and fe­males be­cause it is sweet yet strong,” Yu said. “Once peo­ple get a sip of it, they are just hooked.”

In fact Yu reck­ons he grew up in the aroma of the wine.

Last year his wine sales were worth 3 mil­lion yuan, up 20 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year, he said.

In the dif­fi­cult years, as a cost-sav­ing mea­sure, Yu had no re­tail space or sales staff, and he man­aged to sell most of his pro­duce, at be­tween 136 yuan and 276 yuan a kilo­gram, on the phone to vis­i­tors who had been to Chong­ming and drunk his

laobai­jiu in lo­cal restau­rants.

In a BBC travel and food pro­gram about Shang­hai hosted by Rick Stein last year, Yu’s wine fea­tured, to­gether with soup dumplings and pork lard scal­lion oil pan­cakes as the city’s culi­nary spe­cial­ties.

As for the am­bi­tion to com­pete with and even beat Moutai, Yu said he has not given up.

“How­ever, it’s no longer about sales. I think I’ve earned my pen­sion. I just hope that one day when peo­ple talk about Shang­hai, laobai­jiu will be some­thing that is as much a sig­na­ture for the place where it is made as are Moutai and Cham­pagne.”

(It’s) killed the once preva­lent tra­di­tion of mak­ing sticky rice wine ev­ery au­tumn, af­ter the rice har­vest.” Shi Zhongxiu, re­searcher on how the “in­va­sion of West­ern al­co­hols” has im­pacted lo­cal ar­ti­sanal skills


The Shang­hai Yangtze River Bridge con­nects Chong­ming with down­town Shang­hai. Chong­ming is­land is the third largest in the coun­try af­ter Tai­wan and Hainan.


The ar­ti­sanal skills in mak­ing Chong­ming rice wine, or and passed on be­tween gen­er­a­tions. laobai­jiu, used to be some­thing ev­ery fam­ily on the is­land cher­ished

The Chong­ming rice wine, which is one of the most ac­claimed spe­cial­ties on the is­land, fea­tures a dis­tinc­tive sweet taste.

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