A sweet confusion filled my mind / Until I woke up only finding everything was just a dream

Last night Brigid and I enjoyed a bottle of rather good New Zealand Pinot Gris, over dinner in Antique, one of our top 5 restaurants on this island over-run with rather good restaurants.

And that is rather unusual.

Not the eating part, we tend to eat out about 4 or 5 times a week and we’ve been to Antique so often over the past decade that we order things that Joshua took off the menu four years back, and they happily make them as regular one-offs (although I guess a one-off can’t, by definition, be a regular thing).

Nope, the unusual part was the wine.

Sure, we have wine in this tourist mecca, lots of it, but sadly little that’s either drinkable or, just as importantly, affordable, and as much as I’d like to tag this as simply bizarre, I can’t. Nope, it’s rather smart on the part of the powers that be, the elite that runs Indonesia. Not smart as in part of a positive move on the part of Indonesia to improve the country, neither is it smart as a way to ensure that tourism provides dollars and employment to Indonesians, and, in particular, Balinese.

Nope, but it’s a mighty smart way to extract a fairly large amounts of cash from this island, and the expat and not insubstantial numbers of local Indonesian drinkers (despite what you may be told many Indonesians, yes Muslims, drink rather heavily, and unofficial consumption is over a litre per head per year of pure alcohol, which if you exclude the large number who don’t drink, means that those who do, drink very, very heavily, much apparently during Ramadan).

Taking a step backwards, two years back there was a fairly wide range of all sorts of wine, beer and spirits on this island, and in the increasingly wine-sophisticated mega-tropolis of Jakarta. There were wine columns in newspapers, well-stocked wine speciality stores,extraordinarily good wine lists in most of the country’s often incredible restaurants, and Indonesia – or at least the parts of it which wanted it to be a part of the very urban and cosmopolitan culture now found in all the big cities of Asia, including Indonesia’s near neighbours – was developing quite a wine culture.

Then, bam, the edicts came down. The tax on what was already rather heftily priced booze was effectively raised to 500%, and, worse, severe restrictions were placed on who could import alcohol into Indonesia, with one company being given the monopoly to import and then distribute via a small number of ‘selected’ companies. Overnight the prices tripled, and the stock of most of the better wines and all imported beer dried up, as did saké and many spirits.

No wine in Bali

The excuse given was that there was so much untaxed alcohol coming into the nation that this was urgently needed to tighten up on all that. Of course, that was likely true – the stuff about the black market imports, and as with most things here like this, it was likely that the illicit importers also had government jobs. But that really didn’t explain the massive tax hike or the fact that you could not, in a Belgian Beer bar, find Belgian Beer anymore, or saké in a Japanese restaurant. Now the end result is that the cash flow from the imported booze has simply moved from corrupt customs officials to these “selected” (and connected) distributors.

And the import tax, or at least its impact on the problems it was supposed to address, seems to have been deemed a failure by those who have studied it. And a deadly one.

Since then we’ve had over zealous officials raiding bars and restaurants, often in front of patrons and confiscating almost every bottle of drinkable wine and beer on the island (they’re never seen again, of course).

No, the the real story, as with most things that seem to happen here when it comes to imports, is to protect a small number of self-serving monopolies, in this case the monopoly importer, its privately owned distributors, and the two or three beer brewers, with little regard to the bigger picture: the tourism that returns billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to Indonesia, or the entry of this nation into a wider developed Asia. Nope, it’s about lining a very small number of well-connected pockets.

So, here we are late in 2009, and, yes we can buy wine. But the wine on offer in Bali is to many palates, mine included, mostly terrifying. The wine you can find, even at the best restaurants, is mostly cheap European, Chilean and Australian vinegar at about US$35 a bottle, with little that would end up on a table in much of the world, retailing for much under $50, and casks of Australian A$10 paint-stripper going for up to US$80. The local wine is, let’s be generous, rough and mostly undrinkable swill. – I used to get a headache just driving past the winery when we lived around the corner. You often see a happily naive couple, recently arrived, enjoying a bottle of the local rosé at a café unaware that they are going to enjoying a massive mindbender for the next day or two as a welcome to paradise.

Then there is the beer. We have Bintang of course, famous as Indonesia’s brew, but after suffering it for a while, I simply can’t anymore, even on a 35-degree day. It reminds me too much of the heavily chemical infused Steinlager Blue we used to drink because it was cheap and we were very poor, in the 1970s. I gag. Australians don’t seem to mind it, but then I guess, regardless of how bad it is, it’s substantially better than Fosters, XXXX or VB.

And then we have the Heineken. Brewed locally (they own Bintang too, or part of it) it provides prima-facie evidence that it is possible to make the world’s most popular beer even worse.

So, yes, we had a bottle of wine, we bought it into Bali ourselves and it was a very rare pleasure.

Will, this change? No, I doubt it, a couple of very well connected companies are making a fortune and no doubt a few of their well-connected friends in high places are doing extraordinarily well too. And The government gets the tax.

So here we are in the ludicrous situation, where an island that regularly gets the nod in many of those Best Island In The World thingys , whatever they really mean in the real world, is a place where, for one reason or another you can no longer buy what is considered to be one of the barometers of a modern lifestyle by the folks that pay attention to those sorts of silly things – unless, – or often, even if – you want to spend obscene amounts of money doing so.

Myself, I’d just settle for a decent beer, bugger anything else.

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