We take it totally for granted. It’s like Wi-Fi, air travel, public transport, pensions and hospital treatment. Even the fact that we turn a tap and drinking water comes out. These things – we never ever give them a thought. They’re just there. We never need to think about them. And it’s the same with wine. Every pub, restaurant, bar, club and bistro sells it. People drink wine, in their homes and when they’re out. It can be cheap and cheerful or rare and costly. It’s all around us and we never give it a thought. But you’re in Thailand now. And things are not the same.
Thailand’s full of surprises. The huge gold temples next to tin shanty shacks. The offerings in the spirit houses everywhere. Monks blessing houses and cars. A million dogs living out on the streets. Five people and a baby on one motor scooter. Just how big the smells are here. And then there are cars. And then there’s wine.
Cars? Well nobody in Europe drives a 20 year-old car. You hardly ever see one that’s even ten years old. But it’s not the fact that there are so many old cars in Thailand – it’s what they cost! When I point to a 15 year-old banger and tell visitors that it’s worth 4,000 Euros, they have a fit. Cars hold their value here – and new luxury imports also have a 300% luxury tax, too.
But it’s the thing about wine that really shakes people up! A classy Mercedes is one thing. But wine is real. It’s a daily item, not a fantasy. And in Thailand, people get a correspondingly real shock. They’re just so accustomed to paying six or seven Euros – that’s about 250 baht – but to see the same wine priced at 700, or even 800 baht, makes them shout aloud!
You see, Thailand doesn’t care much for wine. If you pop out with your Thai friends, they’ll all drink spirits. Sometimes they’ll go for beer. But not wine. Wine is a foreign kind of thing. Thailand doesn’t have a wine-making history. So they don’t drink any. Which is why, if you buy wine over here, there’s the same tax on it as an imported Mercedes. It’s a luxury item that only foreigners want. So there’s that luxury tax of 300% on every bottle.
Actually, I’m simplifying things. That’s how the story all began. Today Thailand does in fact grow grapes and produce wine. But, sadly, even though it’s not had to be imported, wine is still considered a luxury. However, a few years back some very astute businessmen realised that they could import wine themselves, and save money that way. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it, as the demand in the hotels and resorts was high. One of the best-known of these importers was founded by Hans-Peter Blumer, in 1994, and called ‘Black Forest Distribution Co Ltd’, with its base in Phuket. And in 2001, a branch opened on Samui, too. The manager here was Matthias Gerbert.
Today, Matthias now owns and manages his own wine distribution company which goes by the memorable title of I’M Beverista (Distribution Co., Ltd.), based in Lamai. He’s very well known to all involved in the wining and dining scene here on Samui. And he’s more of an expert on what’s going on with wine in Thailand than he’d probably like to be! It’s not been all plain sailing by any means.
“The whole business has being going up and down for years,” he told me. “It’s not only the high rate of tax; it’s the exchange rate, too. Let’s say you are from somewhere in Europe. You can get a cheap table wine for €5 and a quality label for €20. If the exchange rate is good, then having to pay even 100% import duties in Thailand doesn’t mean much, because the overall cost of living is cheap while you’re here. But if that cheap bottle of supermarket wine suddenly costs as much as a good wine back home – and the bottle of good wine costs more than you’re paying for a 5-star meal for two – then you drink beer instead. And right now the exchange rate is bad. We’re seeing far fewer Europeans. There are thousands more Asians coming here instead, particularly the Chinese. But they don’t drink much alcohol.”
“Things really started to look good for a couple of years,” Matthias continued. “There was a loophole in the tax rules, meaning that ‘fruit wine’ – basically the sort of ‘alcopop’ you see in supermarkets, fruit juice with a bit of alcohol – was taxed at a far lower rate. And with ordinary house wine needing to sell for 800 baht or so a bottle (about €20) the manufacturers quickly got wise. They immediately began re-bottling and selling their normal economy wines with 5% fruit juice added. Then after a while realised that nobody was checking this, and just added a squirt of juice instead. There were even wines coming in with nothing added at all. As long as it said ‘fruit wine’ somewhere on the label, it wasn’t heavily taxed. Little stores like 7-11 were selling wine for as low as 300 baht a bottle. But it simply couldn’t continue like this.”
And it hasn’t! By the time you read this everything is being re-organised tax-wise, and there’s yet another big price rise on the horizon. Things are back to where they were four or five years ago.
But there’s one small ray of light. And that’s Matthias’s wine shop and bistro. It’s right at the front of Makro in Lamai. And as well as being air-con and very cosy, you can still buy a bottle of respectable wine for about 500 baht. Take it home, or sit and sip a glass or two; there are shady tables outside. Matthias has always tried to keep prices down, as his regular customers well know. And he’s also got some premium stuff for that special occasion, too, also reasonably- priced. When it comes to tales of the grape – he really knows his stuff!
Rob De Wet
For further information, telephone 0 7741 8585.