In the former Portuguese colony of Macau, the tourist office pamphlet promoting the wine museum offered an incredible enticement.
Admission with wine tasting costs 15 Macau patacas (U.S. $2), and “of the new wines, about fifty of them are available for tasting.” The pamphlet further promised the “wines were presented in an appealing way which allows the imagination to go through atmospheres” – as an imagination would after tasting 50 wines.
It sounded like an incredible offer, so I fronted up at the ticket office. Here I learned the sobering truth.
“Yes, there are over 50 wines for tasting, but only six are available each day. No, the 15 pataca ticket doesn’t buy the storeroom, it is only good for one drink.” Still, 15 patacas is a pretty good price for a glass of decent Madeira, so I bought six tickets.
After passing through a screening device, which deters visitors from removing the 80-year-old ports from the salesroom, I was in the museum.
The first exhibit was a long wooden oxcart loaded with an enormous wicker basket full of plastic grapes. Where the ox should have been, a thin wooden stake precariously propped up this heavy vehicle and its burden of plastic grapes. A sign prohibited sitting, squatting or leaning on the cart.
As interesting as that was, it wasn’t what I’d come for. The wine dispensary was a small table near the entrance overseen by a helpful sommelier. “We have white wine, red wine, white port, red port, brandy and Madeira,” she explained. “Where is your ticket and what do you want?”
“Madeira, thank you,” I said, “I’m going for alcohol content.”
Thus armed, I walked into the museum’s first gallery, which is decorated in the style of a Portuguese taverna with long wooden tables and benches. Along the walls are exhibits of all the wine-producing regions of Portugal. For each region there's a map, a description of the grapes grown there, a rack of local wines, and a male and female mannequin dressed in the region’s traditional costumes.
A mainland Chinese tour group monopolized the tables, so I gravitated toward the Dao region exhibit because its mannequins had the coolest costumes. The guy wore a full-body suit of straw from hat to shoes. After a couple of glasses, I tried to engage him in a duet of “If I Only Had a Brain,” but I couldn’t. Eventually I had to sing it alone.
From that exhibit, I learned the Dao region of north-central Portugal produces “Bastardo Tinto” grapes and it has been making wine out of those little bastards since the 8th century. I also learned that grape farmers worry about things called peduncles, pedials and bunch shape.
Peduncles come in short, average and long. Pedials can be short or long with loose or clinging fruit. Intriguingly, the bunch shape of the “Alvarinho” is small, hanging double and fairly compact. Pathetically, the “Redondo Reguengos Vidigueira” is very small, yellowish-green with a soft, colorless pulp.
Beyond the wine exhibition room is a faux wine cellar with an authentic musty smell. Here, the museum displays the various implements used in viniculture – from copper serpentine fermentation tanks, to wooden barrels, to earthen jars, to wooden grape-stomping vats full of plastic grapes.
You can get through that part pretty quickly and go to the museum’s collection of really expensive dusty bottles of ancient wine. This display, which includes a Madeira bottled in the year of Waterloo, is protected by industrial-strength chains and padlocks.
I was just finishing my tour, which is to say, I was just finishing my sixth glass of Madeira. On my way out, I was walking past a photo exhibit of modern Portuguese wine production when suddenly I heard a loud thud that could only be an enormous wicker basket full of plastic grapes crashing off a fallen wooden oxcart. Then I heard the rapid stomping of twelve leather boots that could only be six security guards rushing to secure the plastic grapes, followed by a chorus of five Cantonese words suggesting maternal incest.
A breakfast wine tour group had apparently violated the No-Sitting-on-the-Oxcart rule with predictable consequences, and the ensuing chaos consumed the previously placid museum. The guards were shouting and shoving and pointing at the “No Sitting” sign. The tour group, whose members were the only eyewitnesses to the event, seemed to be offering the explanation of supernatural intervention and oxcart levitation. An angry crowd was building, and most troubling, the sommelier had backed away from her duties.
Things were getting ugly fast when a quick-thinking elderly Portuguese gentleman stepped up to the guards and explained that as a child in the old country he had indeed heard stories of levitating oxcarts. So, perhaps, if everyone just calmed down and picked up the plastic grapes, we could all get some more wine.
It worked. Order was restored. The tour group left. The sommelier returned. I bought another ticket and allowed my imagination to go through another atmosphere.
If I only had a brain.