Samui Wining & Dining
Luxury or Necessity?

Matthias Gerbert explains the current and tenuous place of wine on Samui.

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14How much?!” Most folk who come to Samui find they are instinctively raising an eyebrow when they get the bill for their first bottle of wine. It’s hardly surprising. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s extremely expensive. Some would flatly state that it’s ridiculously so. But the people who might be saying this sort of thing are all Westerners. To them, wine is an everyday aspect of life. True, there are expensive labels and the finest wines are connoisseur items, affordable only by the wealthy. But ordinary table-wine, end-of-bins or discounted supermarket foil-boxes are cheap, cheerful and everywhere. For a few Euros you can enjoy a very palatable wine with your meals every day of the week. But not so in Thailand.

Up until relatively recently, Thai people aren’t wine drinkers. It’s not a part of their culture. Even though there are extensive vineyards in the cooler northern regions, most of this is exported and what doesn’t go abroad is taxed. The sad result of this is that Thailand considers imported wine as being in same category as Mercedes cars – a Luxury Goods Item. But, whereas a new Mercedes will attract a 200% tax surcharge, for some reason imported wines have a whopping great tax of between 380% and 450% stuck on top of the purchase price. No wonder there are some people who are shaking their heads right now.

When I caught up with Matthias Gerbert he was shaking his head. Matthias is the regional (Samui) Manager of the long-established Black Forest Distribution Co., Ltd. and holds the fort at their warehouse in Lamai. This company has been going ever since 1994 when the founder, Hans-Peter Blumer, decided to face the associated red tape and make the importing of wine into Thailand a going concern. For many years, it’s been successful and the company has expanded. But the world economic climate has altered of late. And in the last two years a new situation has emerged.

Things have changed,” reflected Matthias. “There’s been a knock-on effect right the way down from almost the top. I say ‘almost’, as there are still people for whom money is no object, who stay in 6-star hotels and think nothing of spending 100 Euros on wine each night. But these are fewer and further between every month. Ninety-nine percent of visitors to Thailand are now on a well-defined budget. Yes, they will still take a holiday each year. Yes, they will come here with money to spend and will enjoy spending it. Yes, they are resolved to eat well every night and at a fraction of the cost they could back home. That’s part of the attraction; international-quality fine-dining costs less on Samui. But when it comes to drinking wine with their meals …” At this point Matthias really did shake his head!

Hmm, I thought, is the picture really so glum? “Surely table wine is no big deal,” I persisted. We’re not talking about James Bond vintage Bollinger here or Sotheby’s auctions. This is plonk! Taken at its simplest, it’s just a couple of steps up from Alcopops! Children all over Europe expect to see it on the table at mealtimes. It costs pennies!

Not here,” mused Matthias. “Look. We import a case of wine that might cost us 30 Euros a box. By the time we pay the taxes this has cost us maybe 130 Euros. And we need to add the shipping costs and the handling charges, wages, storage and distribution to that. Yes, sure, we now have a Tierra de Luna that is very drinkable and can actually sell for 360 baht a bottle. Buy it from a restaurant and they’ll probably put 120% on it right away. But if you come to the warehouse you can get this for 360 baht. We sell a lot direct to wedding parties, which is thankfully an expanding market on Samui. But we really want to focus on the medium-price good quality wines and these are getting harder to sell.

Matthias then went on to also point out that a few years ago the exchange rate was well over 50 baht to the Euro but right now it’s dropped down to around 38. “People that live here on a fixed income have less money each month and the visitors are now viewing wine as a luxury. It’s as simple as that,” he observed. “When it comes to their evening meals, now it’s a beer or an inexpensive cocktail.

We looked at each other and nodded in an unspoken sympathetic agreement. So it’s decided – wine has now become a luxury. “But,” I quizzed Matthias, “as far as your company goes, is there no light in the current economic darkness?”

And he went on to expand upon the wedding and party situation on the island. Samui has become something of a Mecca for weddings in the last few years. There are literally thousands of folks coming here to tie the knot, as it’s now a cost-effective alternative to the traditional church wedding back home. More fun, too! “We’re selling increasingly more wines to wedding groups,” he told me. “We don’t have a shop, just the warehouse in Lamai. But if anyone contacts me then I’ll happily sell and deliver to them direct. A couple of boxes or just one bottle; no problem. That’s our business!”

There comes a tide in the affairs of men, as Shakespeare once almost said, which taken at the ebb makes wine a luxury. Nobody wants to pay more for a modest bottle of wine than they do for a gourmet meal – well, not on a day-to-day basis, anyway. But every day is a new day and every cloud is lined with silver. Right now the skies over Lamai and ‘Black Forest’ are a darker shade of grey. But maybe a paler shade is on the horizon. And maybe again soon wine will become less than a luxury, credit rates will fall and economies strengthen. But until then …

 


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