You can serve him 2-buck-chuck or $100 bottle of fine Bordeaux, he will discern the differences, texture, flavor, concentration. He will appreciate a high-quality German Riesling with Chinese food. "Oooh, this is so much smoother!" he will exclaim with his eyes enlarged and voice raised in a moment of child-like discovery. It's dinner time. "Would you like some more Riesling, baya?" I'd ask my father-in-law. But no answer would really be necessary, his eyes already reaching for another pour of the Shaoxing wine.
Cheap and strange tasting, this is the wine of his childhood, the only choice of the local people in his hometown two hours away from Shaoxing city in the same Zhejiang province. A man who has seen the world, he can drink whiskey and vodka, sake and wine, but nothing will ever give him more comfort than warm Shaoxing rice wine, the finest in all of China. At $2.99 it could cost 10 times that much, and it wouldn't change a thing. And who am I to argue against the harshness of this wine or the roughness of his palate. For several thousand years this has been the preferred alcoholic beverage of the Chinese. As they say, if you can't beat them, join them?
"When we were children, my dad would pour his sons rice wine at dinner time when he was in good mood. Of course he would monitor us to make sure his boys would not drink too much. In those days, we were disciplined by our parents so much, we would never dare get drunk even as we got older. [Editorial note: China finally banned under-age drinking in 2006 over growing concerns of urbanization and children's independence.] The warmth of the wine and the flavor are so close to my heart, we didn't get to drink this wine in Canada and in most other places I lived, but visiting you here in California, one smell - and all those memories of childhood come rushing back. And later as I was entertained as a guest of honor for important occasions in China, in matters of state business and prestige, they could have served anything, but I always asked for Shaoxing wine, and they presented the best there was in my hometown, perhaps as much as $7/bottle (in retrospect), I never thought to compare or rate them, it just tasted soooo good. And it still does."
Let me see. Amber in color, Shaoxing is officially a yellow rice wine (huangjiu) - its best and most ancient example in the whole of China. Viscous on the palate, savory, nutty, mushroomy, olives, tree bark, the oxidized flavor reminiscent of Sherry.... 15-18% alcohol, strong, perhaps overpowering, yet by Chinese drinking standards, this is a low-alcohol drink (compared to baijiu liquor), of great gastronomic as well as medicinal value, driving cold energy out of your body in winter months, soothing blood, stomach, and nerves.
"When Rona was growing up, I started adding 3-4 preserved plums to the wine to sweeten it for her - she liked it that way, and I got used to that too. Perhaps one plum is enough, but I like it very sweet now." More fond memories of the family and the wine, intertwined.
It's hard for me to drink this. I don't like hard liquor, brandy or sherry. But maybe this would pair well with food? - after all, sherry does with certain dishes. I try it with wonton soup and indeed the savoriness of the wine is quite complimentary to the soup. It also works okay with glutenous rice steamed in banana leaf.
"Baya, have you tried more expensive Shaoxing wine?" I ask.
"I am sure, but I didn't care or keep track, I just enjoyed" he explains. "These wines can age for a long time - 8, 10, even 50 years. We have a tradition - when a girl is born, a few jugs of rice wine are made and buried underground, to be dug out and poured on her wedding day. This is called "nu er hong" (literally "red daughter", referring to a maiden on her wedding night) and the wine is often called just that. You can open it and keep it for a long time, but it will turn into vinegar after a while. But I never have an open bottle for more than 2 days - I can easily drink a whole bottle by myself." he says proudly.
But that's not necessary, as the whole family merrily help him out, Rona leading the way. It's funny, she could never drink this wine with anyone but her family. But when they are here, no grand cru Burgundy could tear her away from the warm, sweet, alcoholic, mediciney, bark-like Shaoxing wine. I may have to learn to like this wine if I am going to ever be really accepted into this crazy family.
Click here for Part 2.