Thursday, 17 April 2014

How and Where to Buy Cheap / Good Value Wine in Singapore

Cheap wine in Singapore...an oxymoron, perhaps?  But why is this the case when taxes and duties on wine in Singapore are eminently reasonable (compared to Australia, Malaysia and even most of Europe)?

The answer is simple: trade mark-ups, which can easily exceed 200% for everyday wines.  The eagerness of wine merchants to pass on the recent 25% alcohol excise hike was, unfortunately, par for the course.  Couple this with a succession of bad harvests in Europe and consequently escalating prices, and what you might once have taken for granted is now looking a little less affordable.

So what do you do?  Like a contrarian and resourceful little rodent, you burrow deeper and harder to find sources of cheaper and better value wine.  I set out a few tips from my experiences below, and would welcome any further ideas from readers.  Contact details for my recommended merchants are at the end of the post.

NB: Please bear in mind that in writing this piece, I am NOT proposing the substitution of Chilean bulk wine if you are used to drinking decent Bordeaux.  Please also note that I have not been paid to give publicity to anyone's business.

1.  Do NOT buy from Retailers - The reason for this is obvious.  Retailers have a whole added layer of costs (the most significant being escalating rentals), as well as their own mark-up on the wholesale price at which they bought the wine.

Instead, I would recommend that you try buying from the direct importers, some of which sell to the general public.  They brought the wine in directly, probably at a decent ex-domaine (very important now that wine counterfeiting is rampant) trade price, so they should be happy to sell it at a decent price.  I recommend that you contact Monopole, Wein & Vin and Auric-Pacific and sign up for their mailing lists.

2.  Do Buy from Retailers - Ha, got you there.  

Some of you who follow this blog may have gotten the idea that I am some kind of snob.  I assure you that is not the case.  I am even prepared to recommend that you go to NTUC FairPrice and pick up a bottle or six of Ashbrook Estate Cabernet Shiraz when it is on sale, roughly $32 nett per bottle (used to be $28.50 nett for the previous vintages).  This is about the same price you will pay at Ashbrook's cellar door.  And what do you get for $32?  A ripe, rather complex yet very drinkable wine that regularly scores 90s in James Halliday's Australian Wine Companion, and which easily beat the pants off more expensive wines.  I also understand that FairPrice are the exclusive importers and retailers of Ashbrook Estate, so you won't find their wines anywhere else on the island.

And if you want cooking wine, FairPrice often does a 1-for-1 special on some Chilean bulk product, and carries a line of Aussie wine which comes in cans (seriously).

3.  Wait for Sales - You may think this is obvious, but some sales are more equal than others.  Auric-Pacific Fine Wines runs a bi-annual mega sale that seems at first to be full of typos, until you realise that yes, OMFG, they are really asking $165 nett for a half-bottle of 2006 Yquem (the cheapest price on Wine Searcher is $216 in HK).  Wein & Vin also ran an obscene 2013 National Day Sale where you could pick up a 2010 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru for $48 nett. (the cheapest Wine Searcher result for this wine is $64, before UK VAT).  Booze also used to run an excellent annual sale, but now seem to spread their offers out across the year.  I should warn, though, that they email you roughly once every two days if you sign up, which can get rather irritating.  

My friend is a member of J&D Burleigh's mailing list.  While the prices (and wines) there are often a little rich for my tastes, he recently helped me pick up a few bottles of a 2010 Domaine de Pegau CdP for $97 nett each, which is equal to the lowest Wine-Searcher price.

4.  Try Before You Buy - There are some great value wine dinners out there.  I blogged before about one hosted by Monopole at La Strada.  For S$98++, I got a five-course dinner with seven wines from Marchesi Antinori.  And these weren't just cheap, sweet nothings, either.  Amongst others, we were given a goodly supply of their prestige labels, Tignanello and Solaia, both of which sell for three figures.  And as the cherry on top of the cream on top of the cake, Monopole offered guests special discounts on their entire range of Antinori wines.

5.  Seek Alternatives / Downgrade - If you are used to drinking good burgundy and are finding yourself being squeezed out of the market due to rising prices, it is worth seeking out alternative sources to feed your addiction.

Authentic Wine Explorers specialises in seeking out wines from lesser-known producers, as well as the rising stars of well-known regions.  So if you are being priced out of Chambolle-Musigny, you could try Vincent Rapet's exquisite Pernand-Vergelesses reds, or even Mercurey or Givry, with a lot of change left over.  As an example, AWE imports Clos Salomon, the star of Givry and a firm Burghound favourite.  The recent vintages of Clos Salomon's Givry 1er Cru all scored between 90 and 92 from Mr Meadows, who is renowned for being a hard marker.  And it's a stunning deal from $55 nett a bottle.

6.  Import Your Wines Directly - The old English wine & spirits merchant Berry Bros & Rudd (BB&R) opened its Singapore office in 2013.  This opened an avenue by which Singaporeans could gain access to a whole new (Old?) world of wines.

Now BB&R is NOT cheap.  I don't think a firm survives for three centuries catering to the Windsors (BB&R hold two Royal Warrants, they will have you know) and the English upper classes by being cheap.  Actually, if you bought wine from BB&R's regular listings, I'm not sure that you would save much money compared to regular Singapore retail.  But BB&R also runs a unique online auction service, the Berrys' Broking Exchange (BBX).  Like any auction, you try your luck and see how you go.  And like any auction, there are steals and gems within the 2,300 listed wines.

The beauty of the system is that only wines purchased from BB&R and stored with BB&R are eligible for listing on the BBX, so you have peace of mind on storage conditions and provenance right there.  BB&R will also refund any flawed (corked, oxidised, etc.) bottles purchased on the BBX, and you can start a BBX account without any minimum spend or prior relationship with BB&R.  

BB&R will ship the wines over to Singapore at S$50 per case of six bottles, or S$70 per case of a dozen bottles (duties and excise will be above this).  They can also store it for you in their climate-controlled warehouse in England for the price of GBP10.80 per dozen case per annum (no pro-rating for six-bottle cases until your holdings reach a minimum 30 bottles).

7.  Go Teetotal - Think of how much money you will save, and how much more liver you will have.  Think also, but do not dwell on, how boring life would be.  It's almost enough to drive you to drink, at which point you may feel free to scroll up the top of the screen and read this post again...

RECOMMENDED CONTACTS (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)

1.  Authentic Wine Explorers.  Specialises predominantly in smaller quality Burgundy producers, with a growing Italian portfolio.  Name brands include Vincent Rapet, François Bertheau and Marco de Bartoli (Marsala).  
Contact Mr. William Chong, proprietor, at sales@awexplorers.com  Web: www.awexplorers.com

2.  Wein & Vin.  Specialising in cool-climate wines, predominantly from France, Germany and Austria.  Marquee names include Weingut Dönnhoff, Zind-Humbrecht, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt and Champagne Pierre Peters.  
Contact Mr. Boon Heng, Owner, Tel: +65 9009 3827.  Email: info@weinvin.com.  Web: www.weinvin.com

3.  Monopole.  Full service international portfolio, with top brands such as Pol Roger, Joseph Drouhin, Hugel et Fils, Marchesi Antinori, Henschke and Graham's.  
Tel: +65 6554 3680.  Email: info@monopole.com.sg.  Web: www.monopole.com.sg

4.  Berry Bros & Rudd.  Massive European portfolio with the prestigious names you would expect, with a unique online auction service.
Contact Mr. Steven Chan, Fine Wine Sales Consultant.  Tel: +65 9733 4200 Email: steven.chan@sg.bbr.com  Web: www.bbr.com

5.  Auric-Pacific Fine Wines.  Comprehensive portfolio offered, with a mad sale twice a year.
Contact Mr. Eugene Yap, Sales Operation Manager Tel: +65 6291 1947 Email: eugeneyap@auric.com.sg.  Web: www.apfw.com.sg

6.  NTUC FairPrice.  Mass-market wines at mass-market prices, but with the odd rare gem if you know what you are looking for.
Various outlets around Singapore

7.  Booze.  Lots of deals on French wines, as well as Spiegelau glasses
Tel: +65 6294 7500 Email: info@booze.com.sg.  Web: www.booze.com.sg

8.  J & D Burleigh.  Focus on Italian, Champagne and Rhone.
Email: contact@jdburleigh.com Web: www.jdburleigh.com


Friday, 11 April 2014

RIP Steven Shaw, eGullet Founder and Proto-Food Blogger (1969-2014)

Steven A. Shaw, a.k.a. Fat Guy, the founder of eGullet and one of the world's first name food bloggers, passed away on Tuesday aged 44.


I am not going to recite a list of his achievements here, nor will I recount to you how well I knew him, because I didn't.  Like most eGullet members, I had some interaction with him.  It was perhaps the measure of the man that he always tried to help his fellow members.  I cold-emailed him a few years ago for a quick interview for an article I was writing about a kerfuffle brewing on eGullet (I can't recall for the life of me what it was now), and he graciously engaged with me in a back-and-forth over a couple of weeks.  

After we wrapped up and I thanked him for his time, he said it sounded like I really liked restaurants, and he sent me a few chapters from his book "Turning The Tables".  The book's premise was that it would teach an everyman guest how s/he could get the best treatment from restaurants, and its thesis was simply "do unto restaurants what you would have them do unto you".  From my limited engagement with him and those who knew him, that was how he approached life in general.

For us here in Asia, eGullet's influence was not particularly far-reaching, due mostly to the fact that it was fundamentally a "Western" (i.e. North American and Western Europe) board and its participant base here in the East was not large.  The Asian boards on eGullet are essentially moribund these days, but Shaw's and eGullet's legacy, of making food blogging a part of the cultural mainstream, has had a massive impact on the restaurant and hospitality industry worldwide, especially in Asia.  How many of you bloggers reading this has ever taken a freebie from a restaurant?  How many of you PRs reading this are looking for the right blogger on which to spend your social media marketing budget?  You are only doing this because it was Shaw's (and his partner Jason Perlow's) pioneering efforts at the the turn of the millennium that made the world first realise that a free-posting forum, with random unedited scribblings about food, could reach a large audience and influence opinion.

But more fundamentally (and certainly this is true for me) it made us realise that there were fellow nuts out there who also engaged regularly in the quasi-intellectual analysis of food, and that being part of this community was always educational, sometimes even enjoyable.  This blog, and my stop-start food-writing career, owes its very existence to eGullet, and the few years I happily posted there.  I also met a few dear and very unique friends through its pages.  I shan't mention their names here to save their blushes but in particular, I enjoyed finally meeting a hulking North American gentleman who spends ten months a year in a fenced-off compound in the Gulf States, only to spend the remaining two drinking, eating and causing mayhem to make up for lost time.  Or the linguistic consultant in Melbourne who speaks eight languages fluently and also happens to make some of the best macarons you will find anywhere.

But, of course, what struck me the most about Shaw's passing was that his very worthy life came to an end far too quickly.  How many of us, caught in the ecstasy of a spoonful of a particularly exquisite double-boiled soup, the crunch of a gorgeous artisan pain au levain with Normandy butter, or even your first sip of 1990 Armand Rousseau Chambertin, felt like you could go on living that moment forever?  The tragedy of life is that you can't, and in the rat-race that we all run, it takes the passing of a giant like Steven Shaw, at the tender age of 44, to remind us again of that brutal truth.

Vale, Fat Guy.  Thank you for being a small part of my life, but for transforming it in a way that I could never foresee.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Champagne Lunch with Two Michelin-Starred Philippe Mille from Les Crayeres

Chef Philippe Mille from the two Michelin-starred Les Crayères of Reims, Champagne, was in town recently for the World Gourmet Summit.  Together with Champagne grower Alexandre Penet, he was hosting a one-off lunch at Raffles Grill paired with Penet's Champagnes, so I didn't need too much persuading to check it out.  Together with Singapore Foodie Victoria and her husband M, we returned to Raffles Grill with some serious expectations of a great afternoon.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Chinese Herbal Cuisine at Majestic Restaurant - A 2014 WGS Masterpiece

Last week at the Majestic Restaurant, I had one of the most unique dining experiences in recent memory. Cooking with Eu Yan Sang herbs, executive chef Yong Bing Ngen produced a masterful six-course showcase in Chinese herbal cuisine.  Paired with a selection of vintages from Hugel et Fils of Alsace, not only was this meal a true eye opener, but it also enabled a critical examination of one's own deeply-held prejudices.


Restaurant Majestic 大華