Samui Wining & Dining
Wine Wisdom

A look at how Black Forest wine is riding the Thailand tide.

9-(1)What do a bottle of wine and a new Mercedes convertible have in common? And, yes, this is a trick question! This is Thailand, so that should give you a clue. Okay then, if you are not in the know, you’ll need to be patient, because the answer goes like this. In Thailand, a Mercedes is a symbol of wealth and success. It is a luxury item. And because of this, it attracts the Thai ‘Luxury Tax’. So, such a car coming into the country is subject to import tax, plus excise duties, plus the 320% luxury-item tax. Yes, that’s right, 320% of the cost of the car as well. And if you can afford all of that, then, indeed, you’re a wealthy person of high social standing. However – exactly the same thing applies to wine

I’m quite serious. The majority of visitors to Thailand don’t know about this. And the majority of visitors here come from European countries. Countries where wine either is produced, or is available very cheaply. Countries where wine is sipped as a matter of course, even with family meals. Countries where a palatable table wine will cost around four or five Euros a bottle. But Thai people don’t generally drink wine.

To them it’s a foreign luxury item. So now, do the maths. Five Euros plus import duty plus VAT makes it a little over six Euros. Then add 320%. Total – somewhere around 20 Euros for the exact same imported bottle.

But the importer has to pay this high price to begin with. And then he sells it to the distributor, at a profit. Then the restaurants buy from the distributors and add their own profit margins. It’s like one of those essays you had to write at school . . . ‘a day in the life of a bottle of wine in Thailand’. And it’s the reason that thousands of Europeans have thrown up their hands in horror every time they sat down in a restaurant. But here’s the interesting thing. Four or five years ago, it was rare to see a restaurant selling a bottle wine for less than 1,000 baht. And yet, today, nearly every restaurant offers several selections for 800 baht or 900 baht. What’s happened? How has it somehow become cheaper? To get more of an insight, I went to speak to Matthias Gerbert, at one of the island’s longest-established distributors, Black Forest Distribution Co. Ltd. in Lamai.

Matthias has been running the Samui branch of Black Forest since 2001, although he has actually been working for the company for longer than that. And it was through him that I discovered how things have been changing. “Back in 2008, we saw the start of a world recession,” he told me. “And those people who still came to Thailand instantly cut back on things that weren’t necessary. People were happy to spend 20 Euros on a good meal for two. But when they saw that just one bottle of cheap house wine9-(2) came to the same price, they switched instead to beers. Things are better now, and more people are coming here with more money to spend. But, in reality, the wines have actually become more expensive, not cheaper!”

Matthias then went on to explain in detail how the relationship between importers and distributors has had to change. This is complex, and doesn’t need to be explained here. But the Thai authorities also decided to ‘bleed the captive cow’ even more last year, with the introduction of another new tax, on top of all the others. Now there is an additional ‘alcohol-related tax’. This effectively means that a wine of 12% alcohol content will now cost an extra 120 baht per litre. And yet we’re still seeing 800 baht wines on the table!

“The Thai wine industry – importers, distributors and end-sellers like restaurants – has become desperate,” Matthias continued. “And now they are looking for every loophole in order to survive. But, actually, that has led to benefits for the customers. Take ‘food wines’ for example. These are wines that have a small percentage of fruit juice added, usually not enough to detect unless you are an expert. But they fall into a different taxation class in Thailand. Also, the manufacturers have become wise to this, now exporting their food-grade wine in just the airtight 5-litre plastic bladders with no packaging. The best-selling bladder-wine in Thailand is Mont Clair red or white and it sells for about 1,000 baht. It's a blend of South African wines, made from red and white grapes together, with the addition of fruit juice. This is being re-sold labelled as ‘Chardonnay’ and ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ with the whites, and ‘Merlot’, ‘Syrah’ and ‘Cabernet’, among the reds. And many restaurants are simply repacking or bottling this and selling it for 850 baht for a 700cc carafe or bottle.”

I asked Matthias how all of this relates to Black Forest. He shrugged. “We won’t do this. We maintain the integrity of our wines, although it’s taken some cutbacks and we’ve had to tighten our belts. There are now many hundreds of New World wineries, each with several excellent products. And with careful shopping, we can still buy-in a quality dinner wine and re-sell it for between 1,000 baht and 1,500 baht a bottle. But you’ll have to come to us and buy direct – if you drink the same wine in a restaurant it’ll cost you twice the price,” Matthias grinned. “Everybody has to make a living!”

Black Forest Distribution Co. Ltd. has established a solid reputation on Samui over the last decade or so, and has retained many faithful customers, both in the trade and amongst individuals, too. Their directness and integrity, together with a plain-speaking approach (well, Matthias, certainly!) means there’s never any guessing about the products they sell. You’ll need to call-in personally to see what they have in stock. It’s in Lamai, close to the post office. That’s when you phone Matthias and ask him to guide you in to the Black Forest warehouse – and you can do far worse when it comes to being wise about wine!


Rob De Wet


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