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New frontiers, Jakarta

All of our European and North American importers were established companies that were usually very traditional family owned businesses. And without exception they were all run very professionally by serious wine people. We had some of the very best importers in the world, famous companies, also representing names like Guigal, Jadot, major Champagne houses and so on. As such we were accustomed to a style of business that was very formal.

So when a garbled fax came through one morning with a large order from someone in Jakarta that we had never met, well a trip to Indonesia was tagged on to the usual 6 country Asian bullet-speed tour. It was to be the first and last trip there.

I was met at the airport by our new client. As is often the case he had a driver so we both sat on the back seat and started to talk. Traffic was bad and we crawled along. Before long we got into the heart of our business discussion and the importer started with a whole string of increasingly ugly requests.

Asking for a discount was one thing, demanding longer payment terms was another, but my eyes bulged when he told me we were both going to a meeting where he would bribe a major Buyer for a major major major Corporation to list our wines. And simultaneously as he came out with all this, at a red light, a teenager slapped the centerfold of a pornographic magazine against the car window, trying to make a sale. It was very graphic. I didn’t know where to look and the importer kept talking like nothing was happening.

This was not like an average day in London seeing Farr Vintners. We’d already been paid for the order he’d placed and so I politely said we couldn’t meet any of his requests and I wouldn’t participate in bribing anyone and that if he wanted to have lunch then great, if not, I think we’re done. It was very uncomfortable.

The issue with emerging markets is that you can waste a lot of time and money trying to build them. Sure, there are always some good importers but there are a lot of cowboys too. There are often other issues like counterfeit wines en masse, containers being left on the docks in 35 C heat for weeks causing the wine to literally cook, and all kinds of funny business dealings.

True, in London you talk about the weather a lot, the formalities are so very British, and you have to listen to them howl about the price increases during the en primeur campaign (can’t blame ’em). But there is alot to be said for the traditional markets. Wineries that neglect them in search of the Asian golden goose should think twice. China, the focus for many Bordeaux chateaux, has already had a bumpy road, and it’s likely to have more turbulence ahead.