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Special Report: Thailand’s wine industry at crossroads

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Special Report: Thailand’s wine industry at crossroads | The Thaiger
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SPECIAL REPORT

Though many foreigners, and some Thais, often succumb to strong cravings for fermented grape juice, Thailand’s wine industry is metaphorically, and literally, in ferment. The Kingdom produces a limited amount of premium wine, not nearly enough to satisfy demand. In addition, the import business is riddled with taxes, making fine wines all-the-more expensive.

In steps Thai ingenuity – and the popular, fruity boxed wines.

Patrick Campbell investigates.

PHUKET: Wine accounts for less than 2 per cent of the total alcohol beverage market in Thailand.
The World Health Organization puts it lower. But wine is, according to a Global Agricultural Information Network assessment, enjoyed by 10 per cent of the population. The reason? It is in demand from “farangs”, whose tipple it was back home and who still have a hankering for the stuff, and from affluent Thais who believe that a meal with a glass or two is a sign of social status.

If you’ll pardon the pun, ferment is an appropriate epithet. While there is a perceived demand in Thailand for the fermented grape, the industry is also metaphorically, and literally, in “ferment”.

The Kingdom produces a limited amount of premium wine, not nearly enough to satisfy demand. But the import business is saddled with punitive taxes, making fine wine expensive.

In September 2013, changes to supposedly simplify the liquor-excise tax were implemented. For “wine made from grapes”, a new tariff was set at 1,000 baht per liter of 100-per-cent pure alcohol, or 300 baht per liter of product value – whichever was higher. Products above 600 baht were to be additionally taxed at 36 per cent of the last wholesale price, though budget wines below 600 baht were exempted. So, fine wines were hit particularly hard.

Indeed, one retailer’s expert assessment is that, taking everything into account, “there is over 700 baht in tax on a bottle of [imported] wine sold at 1,000 baht. Thus, if the wine costs 10 dollars [say 310 baht] at source, then the importer is [already] losing money and needs to increase the price to make any sort of profit. Hence the crisis in Thailand’s premium wine industry for bona fide importers.”

As always, amazing Thai ingenuity has found ways and means of getting around these difficulties. If the excise tariffs and taxes are still high, especially on fine wines, and if the country has relatively few premium producers – Chateau de Loei, PB Valley’s Khao Yai Winery and GranMonte (which has received many international awards) are among the most well known – then why not import grape juice or even concentrate in bulk, ferment it here and avoid most of the levied imposts? Or, even more cost-effective, leaven the mix with local ingredients?

Prices for budget wine have also been driven down by the Australian invention of the environmentally-friendly wine box, a device which has not only reduced transport costs from abroad, but, more importantly, has permitted wine to stay drinkable for up to six weeks.

Bottled wine, once opened and exposed to the air, oxidizes and lasts only a day or two, even in the fridge. But the bag in a box, with its polyethylene, metalized bladder and air-locked tap, has signalled a revolution in quaffing culture.

A ubiquitous example which embraces all of these new trends is Mont Clair, a boxed wine familiar to anyone who frequents the liquor section in supermarkets, or hangs out in bars. But where does Mont Clair come from?

According to the label, this fruit wine hails from Breede River Valley, South Africa. The blurb adds, “Our wine makers have selected cabernet sauvignon grapes from South Africa to blend and create a wine for your everyday enjoyment.” What the label does not say, however, is where fermentation actually takes place. Nor does it say if other ingredients have gone into the mix.

The producer is in fact Siam Winery, a massive Bangkok enterprise which handles much of Thailand’s fruit wine production, and whose website boasts a capacity of 1 million units per day.

There are two important clues to understanding the provenance of such wines.

One is the term “fruit wine” and the other is the orange or blue customs seal, an indicator of origin. The term fruit wine is now found on more and more bottles and boxes. It means that native fruit juice, readily available and mellow tasting, is blended with imported grape juice. The result is a quaffable and less tannin-heavy wine, a drink more amenable to a local palate that craves sugary beverages. An added bonus is that it not only skips some of those burdensome taxes, but is cheaper to produce. A winner all around.

Peter Vella is another widely promoted red-fruit wine. Produced in association with Gallo, one of the world’s biggest vintners, the maker states on the container, “We continue a long tradition of Californian wine-making in our family,” adding “it is full of red fruits and berries.”

While there is, again, no outright distortion of the facts, the orange customs seal confirms final processing in Thailand from Californian grapes and possibly other red fruits and berries. As with its stable-mate Mont Clair, it is unclear whether Peter Vella’s fruits and berries are part of a single fermentation process.

What Thai blends have in common is a competitive price, a fruity taste – a recurrent word – and some connection with the noble grape, vitis vinifera, in its various manifestations. As beverages, they are drinkable and alcoholic – to the tune of 11 to 14 per cent.

If the roselle extract, mulberry, blueberry, pomegranate juice or whatever – all rich in vitamin C – is added later, then conceivably the nutritional value of the product is enhanced. A worrisome thought, though, is whether or not other substances have found their way into the mix: sugar to sweeten or promote secondary fermentation, finings to clarify, even raw alcohol to give it more strength.

Not only are consumers ignorant about what exactly goes into these concoctions, they are, in some cases, unaware of where they are made. This is where the customs tag (orange or blue) comes into play.

A blue label signifies a wine that is vinified elsewhere and imported into the Kingdom. This is an important guarantee, because in wine-producing countries such as Australia, consumer laws demand stringent laboratory analysis: without full compliance, no wine is permitted to leave the country.

In orange-tag Thailand however, no one demands a certificate of analysis, so once an entrepreneur becomes involved, the way is left open for him to do whatever he wants. A cheap and cheerful outcome? Yes. But there are potential health risks – a sobering thought.

I do sometimes drink these blends in local bars because that is all they stock. But, I would be far happier if I knew what went into them, or where they were boxed or bottled. If you are a consumer of budget-priced drinks, try to identify the blue seal and drink boxed imported wines such as Castle Creek, Bodegas and Cedar Creek. In theory, these are reaping the benefits of container technology, an Antipodean wine glut and a trade agreement on wines from Oz.

But even here, alarm bells are ringing. Castle Creek, described as a “wine fruit product” contains not only sulfites but also milk and egg. Presumably, these are added during the process of fining, whereby impurities and solids are removed from the bottom of the fermentation tank. While it is reassuring that these additives are at least mentioned, as they are in another fine red wine with fruit juice called Brookford, there is no reference to their possible role as allergens. Milk and egg are two of the world’s top eight causes of allergic reactions.

Even if there has been some progress with ingredient labelling, it is still inconsistent. The use of orange and blue customs seals can also be confusing. For example, Belleville is identified as an Australian wine and carries a blue customs seal. But this wine owes its blue tag not to antipodean grape juice, but to the fact that it is rustled up in Vietnam. Imported, yes, but only from across the border. The grapes may be Australian, but the finished product is not.

Just as the world long ago habituated itself to the taste of Coca-Cola, so its wine lovers are inuring themselves to the fruity delights of a cheap but perplexing product. And the supermarkets are catching on fast. My local Makro has at least 10 examples, mostly boxed, of fruit wine. As for fine wines, crippled by taxes and undermined by smuggling rings that supply many resorts, they are beyond the financial reach of most consumers. No wonder the upscale trade is in crisis.

For those of us in Thailand who yearn for something worthier of the name of fine wine, we continue to pay for the privilege through the nose – or the wallet.

— Patrick Campbell

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Crime

2 shot dead at Phuket Bus Terminal Saturday night

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2 shot dead at Phuket Bus Terminal Saturday night | The Thaiger
PHoTO: Nashaplaneta.net

Police say 2 men were gunned down at the Phuket Bus Terminal by a colleague at the terminal along the stretch of Thepkasattri road heading into Phuket Town last night. The incident happened at about 10:15pm with the local police chief arriving along with medical staff from Vachira Hospital shortly after the incident.

60 year old Wian Iadchuthong, the alleged gunman, was waiting to surrender at the scene when police arrived. Police say Wian appeared to be drunk and told them he had a serious argument with the 2 men and decided to take their lives with the gun. Police say they found 50 year old Yod Sae Lee lying on the ground in front of a taxi service stand, badly wounded. He was given CPR before being rushed to Vachira Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

54 year old Prakob Chuthong was also found lying dead by the counter of a 24 hour car park service kiosk. Police say he had been shot 2 times, once in the left side of his head and once in his left rib cage, according to Bangkok Post.

Witnesses say before the shooting, Wian was quietly drinking alone. But after getting drunk, he walked to the counter of the car park service kiosk and allegedly fired 2 shots from a 9mm gun at point-blank range, killing Prakob instantly. Wian then ran towards Yod, who was sitting in front of the taxi service stand. Yod saw Wian coming at him with the gun and he ran away to 1 side of the terminal building, only to be intercepted by Wian who allegedly fired 5 shots. Yod was hit 1 time in the head, 2 times in the torso and 2 times in the legs. Yod was also rushed to Vachira Hospital where he later died.

An initial police investigation found that the 3 were close colleagues at the workplace, but often engaged in heated fights over motorcycle taxi and taxi services at the bus terminal.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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Tourism

Phuket lifts mandatory quarantine restrictions for ‘high risk’ arrivals. But were they ever applied?

The Thaiger

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Phuket lifts mandatory quarantine restrictions for ‘high risk’ arrivals. But were they ever applied? | The Thaiger

Culminating 2 weeks of mass confusion over the apparent mandatory self-quarantine for arrivals to Phuket from Bangkok and other high risk provinces, Phuket’s provincial communicable disease committee has agreed to lift the mandatory 14 day quarantine “to help boost the local economy hit by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

But for the vast majority of arrivals from Bangkok (DMK and BKK) to Phuket there wasn’t even any mention of quarantine. Over the past 2 weeks, since Phuket’s Governor released a 3 page announcement about new restrictions for the island, people have mostly been coming and going as usual. The only additional impediments were all arrivees having to download and fill in the Mor Chana app and registering with gophuget.com.

In 2 weeks not a single person has reported to The Thaiger that they had been forced to self-quarantine. Last night, when checking in at Suvarnabhumi airport for a Thai VietJet flight to Phuket, the person at the Check-In counter told the passenger (we’ll call them Mic to protect their identity) they would have to serve 14 days in state quarantine upon arrival in Phuket. Mic, surprised, asked for some sort of confirmation of this from airline management or information from the Phuket Provisional officials. None was forthcoming. Nothing more was said or communicated to the passengers.

When the plane landed in Phuket officials checked that passengers had completed the Mor Chana app and scanned their phones after they’d completed the gophuget.com registration. And that was it. No mention of quarantine.

The situation has been repeated by other Thaiger staff over the past 2 weeks as well, but without any mention of quarantine during the check-in or boarding procedures with various airlines. In all cases they flew from Suvarnabhumi or Don Mueang airports.

Phuket’s Governor Narong Woonciew says the decision to ease the Covid-19 restrictions for visitors followed calls from the business community seeking to lure visitors to Phuket. (The Thaiger wonders if any of these officials had actually travelled over the past 2 weeks)

Local businesses met with provincial authorities on Friday proposing an end to the mandatory quarantine period “for people travelling from certain high-risk areas” in the hope of “stimulating the tourism industry”. The proposal was less about stimulating and more about raising the industry from its current flatline.

But whatever mandatory quarantine they were asking to be lifted appears to be have been, at best, loosely applied anyway.

Phuket has has a triple hit. The first when the borders were closed in April and the international airport closed. The second was when December arrived, the start of the busy tourist high-season. The third was the new restrictions added 2 weeks ago in response to the 2nd wave of clusters that started on December 20, tripling the total number of Covid infections in the country in just over a month.

According to Bangkok Post, Sarayuth Mallum, president of the Phuket travel industry council, says… “strict disease control measures remain necessary to protect local people and tourists from contracting the virus”.

Somehow, the mandatory quarantine requirement instructions never reached the airport officials. But, for now anyway, the “restrictions” have been lifted anyway. What was you experience arriving in Phuket over the past week? Were you asked to conduct a mandatory 14 day self-quarantine?

In the meantime the struggling domestic airlines have been forced to massively cancel or reschedule flights. Over the past 2 days most airlines only had 1 or 2 flights to and from Phuket and Bangkok, down from the 4 – 10 daily flights some airlines were offering.

More about the Mor Chana App here…

More about the direct effects on the island of Phuket…

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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Crime

Phuket national park officer fired over peeping Tom incident

The Thaiger

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Phuket national park officer fired over peeping Tom incident | The Thaiger

A national park officer has been fired after being accused of spying on a woman in the public toilet on January 17 at Phuket’s Sirinath National Park. 28 year old Abdulrama Mahaderi, was accused by a woman named Sopita and her boyfriend Panupong Rungrueng of climbing a wall that separates the men’s and women’s sections of the toilet at Nai Yang beach in order to look at Sopita. Abdulrama allegedly also had his mobile phone in his hand.

Sirinath National Park Chief Pramote Kaewnam confirmed that an investigative committee had spoken to witnesses and determined that Abdulrama was guilty of “misbehaviour and improper actions.”

Pramote confirmed that Abdulrama’s employment contract was then terminated, effective last Wednesday, 3 days after the incident allegedly took place. On its Facebook page, the Sirinath National Park made a post about the incident.

“It has caused disgrace to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and affected the image of the overall department.”

Sura Lertthaisong of Sakhu Police confirmed that Abdulrama would be facing charges and that he was currently investigating whether a charge of “bullying in public” under Section 397 of the Criminal Code would be appropriate.

Abdulrama had previously posted on the official Sirinath National Park Facebook page that his understanding was that no charges would be pursued by Sopita and Panupong.

“The tourists told me that they did not want to press charges. They just told me that they did not want me to do anything like this again.”

But after Panupong posted a photo of Abdulrama, detailing his alleged indiscretion on social media, others came forward with similar accusations.

“One group of women said that they were also spied on by this man on the toilet wall 2 months ago, but they did not report it and did not press charges – and the truth faded away as if nothing ever happened.”

SOURCE: The Phuket News

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