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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