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Exporting Bordeaux wines to Asia – 1994

My training in export sales involved going to the owner’s chateau, having a 3 hour dinner with some staggering old crus classes, and not speaking a word about business. As I left his house he told me to be nice to our client and see if they wanted to order more wine. And that was it. It was not the Gallo school of sales training… it was much more aristocratic. So very Bordelais darling.

So off I went to Singapore, with a price list and a sack of samples. And as it turned out it was a bit like a holiday. The importer picks you up at say 11 am, like it, and swings by your swishy hotel, that suits your swishy wines’ brand image. Then a meeting ,which can take all of 25 minutes, and guess what, it’s lunch. Selling wine at export is a lot about relationships, which are best forged over meals with a healthy amount of wine, as you know.

Of course you talk about what wines they buy and how they are selling, you suffer through their tales of market difficulties and wretched F&B Directors (who are over-solicited so they are tough to crack), and all the while you sing the praises of your latest vintages. But you become friends, which is one of the beautiful things about exporting wines. It’s got to be the most hospitable business in the world.

I seemed to be well suited for this job. A few months later I was dispatched on our companies first ever export mission to Japan, a new market.

The way that we used to open a new market was to pay the French Chamber of Commerce a small fee and they would set-up about 5 days of non-stop meetings with potentially interested importers. You go to the Chamber’s office on day 1, get your itinerary and off you go. Except in Japan it’s like being in your own version of SURVIVOR.

Go into a metro and sometimes there are no English names for the stops. So you don’t know where you are, or where to get off. Approach someone on the platform to ask for help and the ranks clear. People are generally very shy, and very few speak English. Get in a taxi and you better have a map of the place in Japanese, which then tends to be studied at great length by a driver using a magnifying glass. Take your potential client for a nice dinner, including eating a live lobster that twitches in front of your chopsticks, and you’re in the hole for $750.

Don’t get me wrong. Japan has some very special people, places and culture, but it’s like no where else. I would end up spending 4 weeks a year in the country because it is was the major market in Asia for Bordeaux. And one of the keys to success at export was to try and learn the culture.

There was a serious amount of bowing. Like serious. You were still bowing as you back-peddled into the elevator of their office building, bid farewell by the 6 people who came to the meeting with you. Often only one of the people at the meeting is the designated speaker on their behalf. It’s not like Stateside, ya feel me…   Business cards are presented with great ceremony and offered using both hands, soft handshakes with ladies, don’t touch your nose, don’t say “no” (a tricky one I must admit…), and always show the greatest respect.

A huge mistake I made for the first few years was to not shut up. You say your spiel about your wines, taste them with the potential clients, and wrap up by asking if they are interested. Often your question is met with dead silence. So, perturbed, you say that you can throw in 3% in free samples on an order. Silence again. “What the hell guys, let’s make it 5%. How about that?” But all the while the Japanese culture thinks nothing of just digesting your comments for what seems like minutes before they have a conflab in Japanese, and someone replies, hopefully, “yes, we are interested to place order”. And then there are smiles. And with those few words you just locked into some major multinational chemical company that just happens to be one of the largest wine importers in Tokyo. They could be your client for the next 30+ years.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the language barrier. To get around this you hire an interpreter, through the Chamber of Commerce. Of course this makes life easier, and occasionally much more amusing. I would discourage anyone from offering the interpreter to join the tasting because spitting is rude, so you swallow. And sometimes people can be quite sensitive to alcohol and pass out at the meeting and require an evacuation back to the Chamber of Commerce. Day done. One of the greatest attributes of the best translators was when they totally changed what you were saying so you sounded better, and started negotiating on your behalf whilst you sipped yet more green tea.

In 1994 the Asian markets were starting to boom for French wine. Start in Japan, go over to Korea, across to Taiwan, down to Hong Kong, and a late night flight to Singapore. Five countries in 12 days was not unusual for the Bordeaux exporter. It’s enough to make you dream of never going anywhere again….