Friday, September 3, 2010

A case for wine...hands-on experience and analysis of the Asian wine market

Looking back at my wine career which started officially in 1991, I have always enjoyed seeing so many exciting developments in the wine and related industry around the world.  It is also heartening to see a continued rise in wine appreciation even in countries where wine consumption was never part of the culture.

Wine dinner at the Press Club
You may have noticed my long absence from this wine blog, especially after posting regularly every month in 2008.  Let me explain why.  The last 18 months have kept me focused on my wine project in Asia, with Hong Kong as my base, to try and develop a wine distribution venture to accommodate a growing interest in wine among the new, large Chinese middle-class, flushed with lots of money and a strong appetite for Western lifestyle.  Thus it is no surprise to any tourist visiting Hong Kong and Shanghai to see so many Prada and Gucci boutiques lining up major avenues in both cities.

Alas, this obsession with luxury name brands have also affected their choice of wines to buy, more as status symbol than for the sheer pleasure of enjoying a glass or two.  In this market, Bordeaux First Growths represent the very top of prestige labels while other wine regions remain well below the pecking order.  In many cases, it is not uncommon to see them mixing such wines with Coke or Seven-Up.  Suddenly, my French suppliers do not like to hear the word Coke au vin (sic).   Hong Kong's only wine magazine is mostly focused on top labels, with a token article on wines from the "other regions".

Going back to my first year in wine sales in 1991 in Toronto, the city was more into pubs than wine bars, where the only new wines you find in restaurants were Bin 65 Chardonnay and Yellow Label Cab from Australia, while the most wine lists showed generic Chablis, Bordeaux and California wines, plus a house red and white from large format bottles of Valpolicella and Soave.  But Toronto has changed and became an exciting wine market in a few short years due to the consumer attitudes among new wine enthusiasts, journalists and wine importers who were open to exciting selections from various wine regions from Europe and the new world.  Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in Hong Kong and China, where the Bordeaux obsession has reached such ridiculous heights that the only talk of wine in the local media is about how many millions of dollars were paid by the Chinese on First Growth Bordeaux at major wine auctions.  Unfortunately, this perpetuates the impression that wine is a luxury product, and the Chinese think that one must pay high to enjoy a good wine.  As such, most Chinese never bother with wines except when they want to buy one as gift (only Bordeaux please).

Young wine enthusiasts
The good news in Asia comes from Singapore. the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.  In my visits to the Philippines over the last 2 years, I have seen a natural evolution of the wine consumer market through a number of exciting wine shops, wine-friendly restaurants and wine bars, with many locals actually enjoying wine with their meals.  In fact, a modern wine bar, CAV, opened its doors in 2008 in the newly developed upscale commercial/residential zone called Global City, near Makati.  Singapore also has a very active wine culture, that wine has become an everyday part of the dining culture among many of its citizens.  Malaysia also has a burgeoning wine culture, despite the fact that it is a Muslim country.  Lastly, Vietnam now has returned to its former European wine culture during the French occupation and many among the young, successful business people are embracing wine once again. 

What are we to make of these dualities?  Well, let's keep in mind that many Asian countries have a unique and well-established food and beverage culture, which also includes diverse beverage choices as tea, sake and palm/fruit liquors.  Unlike the natural growth of the wine market in North America, where the food culture is similar to European counterparts, how the Asian market will develop is dependent upon a number of approaches to attracting the mainstream consumers to wine.  A good place to start is by encouraging the local media to make space for competent wine enthusiasts to write wine articles in newspapers and magazines on a weekly basis, with a strong emphasis on diversity of wine selections; promote the establishment of wine bars that are truly dedicated to sharing new discoveries to new consumers; allow various trade organizations to conduct regular wine tasting events open to the public.

Finally, I still believe that the global wine market will continue to grow as economies rise in Asia. It is only a matter of time.. but it will happen.  As discussed in my previous posts, Asia can become the largest wine market, but I must now add that one must tread very carefully.  Cheers!