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Korea & the importance of brand names

South Korea is another emerging market in Asia developing a thirst for wine. Red wine, of course. Part of its growing popularity is due to the health benefits that a glass of rouge can give to the imbiber.

As such, in the late 90’s a number of producing regions were coming out with studies proving that their particular grape, or terroir, had special healing powers. I remember Chile going full throttle on this. The studies focused on the amount of resveratrol, which is basically an anti-oxidant, and said that if you had a glass or two every day you would look younger and live longer. Mmmmm….. For my own portfolio of Bordeaux I was convinced that 2 Tylenol could work miracles.

There’s all kinds of smart hotels in Seoul with dozens of restaurants in each, and this is where a large amount of the consumption takes place. It’s quite different from North America, where you would rarely think of going to a hotel for a smart dinner. There are of course  retail shops and many of them have the appearance of an art gallery, where wine is displayed as a luxury good. At least these were the types of places that I would go to visit with my importers.

It’s obvious that packaging is vital to the success of any wine. It’s a product that you can’t try until after you buy, and so one of the few things you have to go on is how appealing the label is. But part of the labeling is also the actual brand name, and in Asia, and elsewhere, this has massive importance.

My firm owned 2 lovely chateaux in Lalande-de-Pomerol, the adjoining appellation to Pomerol, and one fortunate enough to share part of the same name as its illustrious neighbor. When clients talked to us about our 2 delicious Pomerols occasionally we may have forgotten to correct them.

One was called Chateau Sergant and the other was named Chateau des Annereaux. Both were priced the same, they were almost neighbours and so they tasted similar in style. But sales of Chateau Sergant outstripped Chateau des Annereaux 4 to 1. Why? Because the name was easier to pronounce – simple as that.

Some brand names can be so difficult to pronounce that consumers shy away from ordering them because they simply have no idea how to say it, and they don’t want to be embarrassed, especially at their formal business dinner or romantic soiree. And when I look at certain German labels, or Italian for that matter I can sympathize. It’s intimidating. That’s why I just point at the wine on the list my dear.

So we would have endless pronunciation lessons with our clients as they were determined to get it right. Sometimes these would take place after a few glasses of wine and for several minutes we’d go over it, so painfully that it usually ended in hysterics. One more time, “Chat oh Des Anne er row”. And again…. No, no, more emphasis on the “row”. And in the end my friend and client aptly named  Mr. Kim would throw his hands up in the air and say, “forget it, we will just buy the Sargent – like the man in the army”.

I know that often tricky names belong to a place and they simply cannot be easily changed. Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande must have gone through the same exercises with their clients, and eventually found a shortcut in Pichon Lalande. But when a producer does have a choice and they still come up with a tongue twister, well, people may just decide not to open their mouths at all. And that seems like a great shame, and a missed opportunity for the producer.

Hong Kong & customer service

1988 – After boarding school in England was done and I got home to Hong Kong my parents decided that I had better get a job, fast. Having been suspended from boarding school for imbibing they felt that maybe the wine industry would have a certain appeal. And so they contacted their favorite merchant and offered my services for a pittance, telling the lady in charge I would make tea if it came down to it.

A few days later I reported to the 60th floor of a HK skyscraper to start my first job in the wine trade, age 18. My boss was an Australian lady, very tall, thin, early 30’s, fun and attractive. She usually had a menthol ultra slim fag hanging out of her mouth covered in lipstick and was giggling about the fun she had at the weekend.

I can hear my father saying, “son, it’s always good to start at the bottom and work your way up”.  And there was no doubt that I was starting at the bottom. One of my jobs was to be a delivery boy. And I can assure you that in the tropical heat it was not an easy task to deliver wine to the 54th floor of some fancy bank, using the service elevators with the local workmen. Back alleys in HK was not the place to be. Other thrilling jobs included data-entry, creating invoices, and picking and packing orders was the bomb.

This import company specialized in boutique Australian wine, unfortunately a little ahead of its time for that category in 1988.

However one thing that I did learn was the importance of customer service. My boss would often tell me that it was vitally important that we treat every client like gold, because the issue with the wine business is that they could easily go to another merchant and buy, or simply walk down the street and grab a bottle at the supermarket. So I watched her interact with customers and learnt that in wine, due to the enormous competition, you really do have to go above and beyond with your customer service.

This included hand-written notes of thanks, follow-up calls to ask if they liked the wine (and wanted more), special invites to tastings, invitations to lunch or drinks, invites to her house for dinner with her husband, and basically red carpet treatment. And its true that customer service is critical in the wine trade. It is a business that is heavily based on relationships because frankly, a lot of wines taste just as good as each other.

After 6 months I left my first job, on great terms, before going travelling in South America. My boss had a party for me, and then surprisingly threw in some of her own trademark customer service, as a very special farewell. I was sure I’d get a glowing reference letter.

The Hong Kong wine market & the Commanderie de Bordeaux

I lived in Hong Kong for 16 years. For another 10 years after that I went there to sell Bordeaux wine. I love the place. It will always feel like home.

Today, it’s the hub of the Asian wine market. It’s home to a large number of incredibly sophisticated consumers. And these wine lovers can have massive spending power. Yes, Hong Kong has become the capital of the fine wine auction market and the sales results are off the charts. Did I just read that someone spent almost US$480,000 on 12 bottles of DRC? There’s a saying “only in Hong Kong”.

Consumer wealth takes on a whole new meaning in HK because people live to work, they live to make money, and then they spend it lavishly. Expensive cars are the norm on the streets, mega-yachts adorn the marinas, and the ladies that lunch look like they’ve been decorated for Christmas. Sparkle sparkle… and surely a good girl deserves a $16,000 Hermes handbag under the tree, right honey?

I was very fortunate to make an agreement with a fantastic HK importer back in 1994, that still lasts today. But to woo this company we had to put on one of our fancy events, showcasing 40 year verticals of our own chateaux. But when you don’t have a good contact network in the local trade, and you’ve no idea who the movers and shakers are, then you need to find someone to help you. So I contacted the Grand Maître of The Commanderie de Bordeaux, HK Chapter.

The Commanderies have been set-up by the CIVB in Bordeaux (the HQ that oversees everything) with the mission of promoting the regions wines. There are many Commanderies around the world, in a lot of major cities. The people that run these satellite “chapters”, like the one in HK, do it for free, because they love Bordeaux wines. The Grand Maitre is usually a successful businessman who knows the Bordeaux chateaux very well and visits them every year for his personal interest. Its basically his hobby and pleasure.

If you contact the Grand Maitre they will often take the time to explain the market, give you tips and contacts details of the key players, make some calls on your behalf, and possibly help organize an event to assist you to market your wines. And so we did. The Commanderie gave us a guest list of media, importers and influencers and we put on a stunning tasting.

But there was one issue with getting people to come out to our event in this bustling metropolis, which was diplomatically broached during the event planning lunch. The Grand Maitre leaned towards me and said, wincing, “some people simply won’t drink anything unless it is a 1st growth. Lafite is their house wine. Any chance you could bring some of that too?”

And so we did, and people came, and we got our importer, and then a few more importers in the years following that. And it was largely thanks to the Commanderie, which is an excellent organization and a superb model that other wine regions should consider following more seriously.

In the last 20 years, since the import tax on wine was dramatically reduced in landmark legislation, the number of importers has exploded. The range of wines on offer is huge. The wine lists at the top restaurants are as thick as bibles and there is a thirst for the very finest vintages. There are more WSET schools on this small island than in most large countries, and combined with China is does the largest volume of WSET exams in the world after the UK.

There are 2 resident MW’s. My pen pal and superstar Debra Meiburg, who is the most amazing woman that I’ve never met (except for 10 seconds at our MW graduation the same year). And then Jeannie Cho Lee, whose productivity is startling. Singapore Airlines, Decanter, books, etc… you guys make me feel lazy. Take a holiday guys!

So Hong Kong is one of the capitals of the wine world. And it’s all set to continue to get stronger and stronger as time goes on. And that’s why we started a wine industry recruitment site there, just in case you want a job

Tantalus Vineyards, Okanagan Valley

Tantalus Vineyards unquestionably produces the very best quality Riesling in the Okanagan valley. The wines are excellent, the team is first class, and the owner has a long term vision and commitment to his beautiful wines. The 2011 Old Vines Riesling is one of my favorites and when pushed I’d rate it 93 points.

I love the apple, citrus and nectarine aromatics that leap out of the glass, underpinned by a steely mineral note. There is some gorgeous fruit ripeness counter-balancing the crisp acidity on the palate, with more pear, apple and lemon flavours. It’s bracing, tight, focused and long, and it’s lip-smacking good. Drink it now with some scallops or BC salmon or age it for another 5+ years and let the complexity unravel. Tantalus Riesling is the bomb.

Last week my wife suggested that I write a book about starting a winery, because I’ve done a number of them now. I quickly replied that the title would be very simple: DON’T.

Why? Because to do it right is very hard. You need a monstrous amount of capital, a colossal amount of patience, a team of extraordinary people, and a very long term vision.

I’ve seen enormously rich owners suffer from a chronic disease called cheque-writing fatigue. Even when I’m the acting GM, and I know what invoices are coming, it still pains me to forward them on to my clients. A million here, 1/2 a million there, $50k on this, $4K on that, it’s just never ending. And many of these costs are paid long before you ever sold a bottle.

If someone asked me today for a ballpark price on starting a brand new winery replete with some nice vineyards that you own, an attractive winery, a great team, quality everything, well I’d blurt out $10 million bucks. So one of the keys to success is to have an owner who is totally dedicated to the pursuit of making excellent quality wine because without that vision, and the capital to back it up, then you may as well not bother. The team at Tantalus should thank their lucky stars to have the owner that they do. It’s rare.

Then you need an outstanding team. The first guy you need is an expert viticulturalist who lives and breathes plants. Warwick is the man behind the vineyards at Tantalus. He’s out there all day long working them, managing his small team, and you’ll often find him at seminars and conferences learning from others. Think that is a given? The jokes on you.

Then you need a highly accomplished Winemaker, someone who has been professionally trained and worked at icon wineries around the world. All too often you find Winemakers in the Okanagan who have barely been out of British Columbia, had no professional training, and the results show. But at Tantalus in David Paterson they have a serious winemaker who not only knows his Riesling but also understands the market. And your Winemaker needs other skills too, like being good with customers, cost-conscious and efficient. Being good at making the wine isn’t enough.

Then you need a GM. This is an extremely complicated position. You have to have dozens of skills, and knowledge about everything. You’re out there with the viti people talking about dappled light and green harvests and picking bins and yields, costs and budgets. Then you’re in the cellar looking at equipment, winemaking techniques, doing quality evaluations, estimating volumes for bottling and evaluating cost/benefits on everything. Then you’re tasting and dictating styles. Into the office and you’re organizing marketing campaigns like road shows and Winemaker Dinners, talking to your agent, looking at sales reports, P&L’s, proposals, a billion emails from everyone, and you’d better have a good relationship with your owner and your team. I respect the job that GM Jane Hatch does. It isn’t easy.

So you have capital resources, a long term vision, and an extraordinary team. There’s a few other things that might come in handy too and that’s a good terroir and the weather to be on your side. Those types of things are a given.

There is only one issue that I see at Tantalus, and it relates to pricing. It’s way too low for the quality of the Old Vines Riesling at around $35.  This is great for the consumer of course. But to think of the high quality they have achieved and the massive expense it takes to do it, well they’re practically giving it away.

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.

The psychology of tasting in Taiwan

In 1994 the Taiwanese had suddenly fallen in love with red wine and there was an explosion of new importers. There was a buck to be made and suddenly everyone was in on the game.

For us this made life both easier and more difficult. It was easier because you could meet dozens of potentially interested importers who might represent you, and more difficult because most of them had no experience in wine. Inevitably some of the meetings were a total comedy.

On my first mission, as the French call it, I went to see a company who had just made the decision to import wines and I was about the first supplier they had ever met. Lovely people, very kind, warm and welcoming. Hospitality was always so gracious. But the meeting quickly went sideways when we got to the tasting.

In Bordeaux I had seen the owner do a tasting with one of our UK importers and he simply opened the wines and let him taste, not saying a word until after he was done. I thought this was very impartial and allowed the taster to make a true judgment of the wine quality. So I adopted the same technique.

My new Taiwanese friends looked at the mysterious red liquid as I poured them all samples. I formally stated the name of the chateau, and did not say anything else. They picked up their glasses, did a cheers, and then tasted my young red Bordeaux. The facial contortions that followed were something to behold as the tannin ripped through their gums and the acid pierced their lips. Tears were welling up in the ladies eyes, and then after the owner somehow managed to swallow he blurted out “SO BAD. I feel like something die in my mouth”.

This was not the feedback I was used to and I didn’t know whether to laugh, be insulted or reply that I’d never let you represent us so ciao. But I realized that it was all new to them, and it was my job to try and explain and educate so that this company could understand wine, just as people had explained to me.

So for the next wine I took a different tact, one that any savvy wine salesmen would take. I refrained from pouring a sample until I had given them an explanation of the chateau, the region, the grapes, the scores, the flavours and thrown in a nice story “You are going to LOVE this wine. It’s one of my favorites. I live in the top left bedroom of the chateau on the label and its my home”. I think I put some extra emphasis on the fact it was my home…

Sure enough, although there was even more tannin, they loved it. And how could you not? There have been several studies on the psychology of tasting which typically imply that if you tell someone that they are tasting something then they will believe you. And there is definitely some truth to this with many wine drinkers, but not all. The studies usually tell the tasters that the table wine is a Grand Cru and vica versa and it fools most people.

But in my experience I am convinced that the vast majority of wine drinkers can actually tell quite a lot about a wine, and that the human being has an innate ability to tell if something is pleasurable or not. If there is a bad smell then we can tell. We’re basically built that way.

That said, if you are told a nice story about the wine that you are about to taste, including some type of intriguing inside scoop, along with some big scores, some delicious sounding flavours, and you are shown a pretty picture of the estate then the taster already has a pre-disposition to being positive about the wine.

As was usually the case at these 2-3 hour meetings we tasted all the wines and had some good discussion. I had already decided that this company was not the right choice for us because we needed an experienced importer. As it drew to a close the owner looked at me and said, “We like the red wine from the place where you live, but can you ask them to make it sweet.”