Elephants in Thailand? Normal. Elephants on a vineyard in Thailand? Wait, there are vineyards in Thailand? Adam Graham goes on a journey of culinary discovery.
PRACHUAP KHIRI KHAN, Thailand – Her name is Honey Bee. She's 40, enjoys fresh pineapple, moonlit strolls through the vineyard, and leans a little to the right when she walks. Okay, she leans a lot to the right. Oh, she also weighs three tons. Honey Bee is one of two lady elephants on the grounds at Thailand's new Hua Hin Hills Vineyard, two hours south of Bangkok.
I first saw Honey Bee and her elder shed-mate Fatty, 45, munching on grass in the shed behind Siam Winery's gorgeous modern tasting room (more on that later). Despite what 99% of the world thinks, I thought ellies were sorta boring. As far as I was concerned, they were big, colorless armadillos with long noses and wrinkled, gnarly butts (which are, yes, admittedly cute). I was once charged by a massive bull in Botswana's Okavanga Delta, so the animals never really held a place in my heart.
But Honey Bee: total game-changer. It wasn't her per se, but rather the magic of watching such a massive animal tiptoe so gently through the grapevines. Not a peep. Honey Bee, softer and quieter than her namesake, was as delicate as the grapes themselves.
I know what you're thinking. Elephants are fantastic, but Thai wine? Bitch, please. But new latitude wines aren't as bad as you think. India and Mexico have had success with their reds. Brazil, too. Thailand has a handful of wineries, mostly in the north near Chiang Mai. But Huan Hills is the southern rebel producing two highlights: a peppery velvet shiraz and a mellow rosé they're calling White Syrrah, which is like shiraz with bleach-blonde hair. It pairs particularly well with spicy Thai dishes. The winery also produces Spy Wine Coolers, a trendy drink in Thailand, Cuvée de Siam Blanc, a sparkling white blend of chenin blanc and colombard, and Reserve Monsoon Wines, which are excellent. They are named with the years of the Buddhist calendar, so you can impress your friends with a bottle of vintage 2551, which is really 2008.
The 560-rolling-acre estate sits on the edge of Burma and offers fantastic views of the verdant Hua Hin Hills, where you can hear the call of green magpies and watch monsoon clouds forming over the corona of the trees. The tasting room is designed by Norman Foster alum Sylvia Soh, a Malaysian-born architect who made good use of local bamboo woods and resources at this site. Inside is a restaurant where you can sample flights of their wines and a really good gift shop where you can buy medicinal grape extract, grape leaf teas, oils, and preserves, all from the property.
But the best part are the elephant rides through the vineyards, an experience you won't find in Sonoma or Bordeaux. For 500 baht ($16), you can hop aboard Honey Bee (or Fatty if you want a sturdier model) and embark on a 30-minute silent tour of the vineyard's loamy sangiovese and tempranillo plots.
It's impossible to not wonder if Honey Bee has a favorite vino. I would have pegged her as a rosé drinker, but I bet she slurps a few wine-coolers when nobody's looking.