Vintage wine argument has bouquet of questionable ingredients

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2007, 12:00am

'People in the restaurant business don't get rich'

Restaurateur Allan Zeman

WE'RE PASSING THE HAT, folks. The man is so poor that he can't even afford socks. Dig deep in your pockets for a contribution now. You wouldn't want to see him on social security assistance, would you?

Okay, that's an aside, just one quote I couldn't resist in an excellent piece on wine duties by my colleague Peter Kammerer in Saturday's paper. Mr Zeman wants the 80 per cent wine duty cut. It would be a 'win-win' for both Hong Kong residents and the tourism business, he says.

Peter, however, let the cat out of the bag when quoting other people. It turns out that the duty is not such a big part of the wine bill after all.

It amounts to an average of only HK$28 a bottle. The truly hefty mark-ups come elsewhere on the route from the vineyard to your glass.

For example, the landed cost in Hong Kong of a bottle of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc is HK$50 or less and the duty then payable on it comes to HK$40. Yet what you pay for it at the restaurant table is somewhere between HK$450 and HK$900 a bottle. Even if the duty is cut by half, that top price only comes down to HK$880 a bottle.

I'm willing to believe that many people in the restaurant business don't get rich. Nonetheless, if they cannot make good money on such mark-ups then either they are using the wrong middlemen or their landlords have them ensnared. Whatever it may be, there is no point in blaming duties alone for those high wine prices.

But if you and I stand to benefit little from a cut in wine duties, I can think of people who would benefit more. These are the people who maintain big wine cellars abroad and bring in a few bottles from time to time. They pay no middlemen or landlords. Their costs are only the declared import price and the duty. They stand to save proportionately the most from lower wine duties.

And isn't it interesting that by far the most prominent of these people in Hong Kong is our Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, the man who must decide this month whether or not to cut the duties.

I wonder just how he will talk himself through this one.

'As part of its continuing Operation Raptor, the Customs and Excise Department aims to crack down on pirated cartoon items, including Hello Kitty and Disney toys, gadgets and decorations.'

SCMP, February 12

RAPTOR, THAT'S A bird of prey. Disney, that's a mouse. Raptors eat mice. Why is this one preying on its own nestlings then?

I ask because a copyright clause in the constitution of the United States is very clear in stating that copyright and patent monopolies can be conferred by Congress 'for limited times' only. This was taken by the first Congress as meaning 14 years.

It is now 95 years with the most recent extension, known simply as the 'Disney Law', adopted in a rush in 1998 when Disney took fright at the looming expiry of its copyright on Mickey Mouse. What does a trifling thing like the United States constitution matter to the United States Congress when Disney's interests are at stake?

And thus merchants at Lunar New Year stalls are to be stalked by prowling customs officers checking to see that anyone peddling dolls with a close resemblance to Mickey Mouse has first paid Disney for the right to sell them.

It's a triple insult to us. Not only has the US government forced this on us in defiance of its own constitution and without regard to our views on copyright but we, not Disney, are to pay the cost of enforcing this foreign legislation and we are further to pay a Disney premium if we buy the merchandise in the stalls.

Of course, I can understand why our government has to make a few noises of compliance with this offensive nonsense. We are part of China and China runs a big trade surplus with the United States. These things carry a price.

But what I cannot understand is why our Customs and Excise people seem to take it seriously. This is a game and on our side it should be played by such stunts as calling out the road rollers to crush a selection of a few fake Disney dolls in front of as many television camera crews as will come on the promise of a free lunch afterwards.

That's how this sort of thing is done, a big demonstration of unreserved fulsome support for Washington's view of things, all flash and no bang in other words. Other Asian customs officials know how to do it properly. What's wrong with ours?

Then again, perhaps ours are cleverer than I give them credit for. Operation Raptor, you know. Isn't that just the sort of silly name you would give it if the US government were your big customer? Would you really call it that if you were serious about it? Hmmm ...