Pedaling to Burma’s Vineyards
Near Inle Lake, an Uphill Ride Ferments Adventures Bigger than Wine
By Dave Fox
Nyaung Shwe, Burma (Myanmar)
I was exhausted and filthy from an all-day bike ride. I was craving a shower and a nap. But rumor had it that on the outskirts of town, up a steep hill in the opposite direction from where we’d come, was a winery.
Our group of four fell into a collective peer pressure to exhaust ourselves further. It wasn’t every day we got to cycle to a Burmese winery.
We pedaled past pagodas and thatched-roof houses, out of Nyaung Shwe. Eventually, the town faded into farmland. We’d been riding 20 minutes when I remembered the winery was only supposed to be ten minutes away.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” I shouted to Gary and Rena, who had studied the map in our guidebook.
Nobody was sure. There was no one around to ask for directions. Even if there had been, the language barrier was thick here. We kept going.
Five minutes later, we spotted two cyclists approaching us – French tourists.
“Yes, it’s there,” the woman said to me. “About ten more minutes.”
“Do you know what time they close?” I asked. We’d gotten it in our heads the winery closed at five, though none of us could remember where we’d heard that information. It was nearly five already.
“I don’t know,” the French woman said.
We pedaled harder.
We reached the hill. It was steeper than we had feared – a challenge on our gearless, two-dollar-rental bikes. I looked at my watch. Seven minutes to five. I looked at the hill. About five minutes to the top. Would they still let us in?
“They have wine,” I reminded myself. My legs burned as I stood on the pedals for extra leverage.
I think I can. I think I can. I think I…
That’s when I heard a loud snap. Or a clunk. A bike-chain noise of some sort. Not a good noise.
I was taking up the rear, and in our race against the clock, nobody was looking back. I watched Gary and Rena disappear around a corner, followed by Kattina.
My chain was jammed. The pedals wouldn’t move. My only way up the hill now was to run.
Sprinting up a steep hill, tussling with the handlebars of a dysfunctional bicycle, when a winery is about to slam its doors in your face because you are two minutes late, is a stressful experience, particularly when you’re already wiped out from heat and excess exercise. But what choice did I have? Eventually Kattina noticed I was missing and waited for me to catch up.
“What’s wrong?” she shouted from above as I galloped around the curve.
“Go on without me. See if they’ll still let us in.”
I kept running until I was gasping. Then I walked fast. At three minutes past five, I reached the top.
Grapevines sprawled around the winery. Workers were out harvesting. Inle Lake shimmered below in the distance, surrounded by dry, grassy plains. But there was no time to admire the view. My friends were inside now drinking all the wine.
The Red Mountain Estate Winery was a bright red mansion of a building with a tasting room whose elegance – here on the outskirts of a rickety Burmese village – didn’t fit. It had glossy wooden floors and flawlessly varnished furniture. Large-paned windows offered a wraparound view of the world below. A receptionist greeted me, unfazed by the clock. They were open for dinner.
For 2,000 kyat – around two US dollars – I ordered a four-taste sampler that included a Sauvignon Blanc, a Rosé, a Shiraz-Tempranillo, and a “Late Harvest.”
I like wine, but I can’t describe it like an expert. I can’t tell you if a wine has a “musky bouquet” or a “marshmallow snout.” I can tell you the Sauvignon Blanc was excellent, the Shiraz was tasty, and the Rosé reminded me of cheap swill I used to drink in college.
The menu offered a more sophisticated description. Of the Shiraz-Tempranillo , it boasted, “The alcoholic and malo-lactic fermentations have been controlled in stainless steel tanks…. First nose on the oaky range like vanilla and black chocolate. Candied morrello cherry. Spicy and animal notes.”
I couldn’t taste the animals, but as I said, my palate is unrefined.
The sun began drooping toward the horizon. In a land with few streetlights, and many cars without functioning headlights, we needed to head out before it got dark. I wrangled my chain back into place and coasted down the hill.
On the outskirts of town, we hit the brakes when we spotted family standing around an unusual contraption – a pool table of sorts but with a wood playing surface. There were plastic disks instead of balls, and corner pockets made of string netting. A flick of the finger substituted for a cue.
The game was clearly a prized possession. It was too large to fit inside the family’s house, so they’d built a separate shelter for it with palm thatching to keep the rain off. Four adults and a gaggle of children were gathered under the awning. A couple of guys were in a heated competition. The rest of the clan was cheering them on.
They smiled when we pulled up beside them. We had no common language but we didn’t need one. They were happy to have foreign spectators. We hung out and watched them. And they watched us watch them. We shared a friendly curiosity.
Up on the hill, the views and wine had been lovely. But other than staff dressed in formal Western attire, there had been no Burmese people. For many Nyaung Shwe residents, a three-dollar glass of wine equaled a day’s wages.
The winery had been worth the scramble to get there, but our most memorable moments had happened on the fringes of the journey. Those moments would not have happened, however, had we not set off on a touristy mission.
That’s one of my favorite things about travel. Often, an intended destination is merely a tool that lures us toward unplanned adventures. Adventures no guidebook can anticipate.
The Red Mountain Estate Winery and Vineyards are located a few kilometers southeast of Nyaung Shwe near Inle Lake. For more information, visit redmountain-estate.com.