You Can Lead Chinese to Wine, But Can You Make Them Drink It?
by Elizabeth Willoughby
If, like me, your eyes usually scan the wine aisles for, say, California or Chile, but not for China, it's probably because there is no aisle for Chinese grape wine, and probably because you've never put "wine" and "China" into the same thought. And, probably, there is a reason for that.
Even though China has some established wineries, Shanghai's SEVENg founder Kay Liu says, "Chinese wine is not good." At least not yet. But that is not her concern. At least not yet. SEVENg imports wine into China, not the other way around. However, this is also not without its challenges. The problem, says Kay Liu, is the culture.
Take, for example, this typical Chinese drinking ritual:
1. The toast: "Ganbei!" ("Dry your glass!")
2. Chug a glass of schnapps
3. Demonstrate that your glass is truly empty
4. Repeat 1-3
5. Repeat 1-3
Such a tradition obviously does not work for wine.
China has been a place where, I am told, wine is not ordered to drink, but rather to demonstrate that one can afford to order it. Indeed, as nearby diners leave their lunch table at The House of Roosevelt's Sky Restaurant on the city's historical British Concession, The Bund, there sit four untouched glasses of wine.
"Even as little as ten years ago, the Chinese couldn't judge wine quality," says Kay, "so importers have been taking advantage of their ignorance to sell low quality wine for a high price. That causes problems for good wines at a good price to come into the market."
But things are changing. When Chairman Xi Jinping was seen drinking wine with his meals, others followed suit, kick starting a need for wine education. Wine industry workers have begun teaching the Chinese about wine through tastings, at parties and in classes. The new wealthy have joined restaurant wine clubs. Some international companies have started including wine education in business management courses.
With a fledgling market of wine consumers, Kay saw an opportunity. After gaining marketing experience working for Napa Valley's Silenus estate winery, and then gaining importing experience with Kerry Group, she created SEVENg in November (2014), "to be a platform to connect wineries directly to the customer, such as private consumers, five-star hotels and restaurants," she says. "No distributer, no retailer, no middle circle."
A play on words (Qi = seven, Qig (7+g) = miracle), the plan for SEVENg is 'to perfectly make a miracle', starting with a niche winery alliance. On board thus far are small wineries such as B Cellars in Napa Valley, Solà Classic and Sumarroca in Spain, and Bolla in Italy.
Meanwhile, Chinese wineries continue on their own evolutionary path. A far cry from the quality of wines that Kay Liu imports is the wine that her own father makes. Five years ago, he turned his grapes-for-eating vines into a hobby wine vineyard after Kay introduced him to imported wine as an alternative to his 'Chinese water' consumption. "He's still learning," she says. "It's still grape juice, not wine." At least not yet.
© Elizabeth Willoughby 2015
This article has also been published in German language here at travelbar.de
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