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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.

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.

Allez La France

There are a number of things that turn the French on. Food, unquestionably in poll position; sex, they are French after all ; wine, and rugby. OK they like Hermes too but that’s for a very special niche market. Rugby is a religion in France. It is every boys dream to play for les bleus, and score the winning try in the dieing seconds of the World Cup, beating the British. Oh, the sweet taste of giving it to the Brits. It’s a national pastime.

So the only thing that could interrupt the work in the cellar during harvest was to play rugby. And that took care of most of Sunday. But what I didn’t realize was the unusual way that a French team prepares for a match, and during that process I also had the revelation that your average Frenchman doesn’t have a clue about wine. It is a myth that everyone in France is somehow related to Michel Rolland. No, whilst a nationality of great taste and sophistication in many ways, most people just knock back the red like its water, and make a few comments that you can’t go wrong with – ah, c’est bon ca. This was certainly the favorite expression of the players at the pre-game lunch.

Here’s the way it shakes down in small village French club rugby played by adult men between 20-55, all on the same team. You show up at
the clubhouse at 12 noon for the aperitif of pastis, then there’s a 4 course lunch with carafes of red everywhere, and then after a quick coffee it’s time to amble down to the pitch, get changed, and play a match with kick-off at 3.30 pm. So you tailgate for 3 ½ hours as a player.

If they had breathalyzed the entire team they would have impounded every car. And yet as the game unfolded I finally understood how the most dynamic and beautiful rugby team anywhere in the world gets its magic flair from, its ability to pull a rabbit out of hat, to bring a nation of supporters to its feet chanting allez la France. Well, there’s the individual nature of the people, a knack, a brilliance, but it’s also partly because of the wine pre-game. And if you follow rugby it will now make perfect sense why they are the most penalized team in the world.

Sadly, domestic consumption of wine is going down, dramatically. In fact over the last 30 years it has plummeted. Why? It’s not cool to drink what your parents used to slosh back, there are drinking and driving laws now, and there are strict government anti-alcohol stances especially with regards to advertising. And frankly the previous numbers of the 1970’s were spiked by clearly excessive consumption. Case in point. I would be the only person drinking coffee at 8 am in the local café. Everyone else, driving tractors and working in the fields, was drinking wine or beer. And some people would drink 2 liters of low alcohol red per day, every day. Wow.

It’s really been the perfect storm for many French producers. A local market that is trending down, export markets full of strange people from places like Chile and Australia with kangaroos on the label, that somehow sell like hotcakes. And generally they now have competitors outsmarting them in marketing and offering better value. It has either forced French producers to improve, or leave. This struggle in the French wine sector is a matter of national pride. Because whilst every Frenchman might not know about Brett and odd sounding tests like 4EG, they sure know that France produces the best wines in the world. And on that point, they are not wrong.

Le Bureau in Bordeaux, 1993

After two months in the cellars during harvest, doing all the heavy duty work, it was a relief when one day the owner, clad in his tailored suit and looking most aristocratic, instructed me to come to work at the office.

It’s hard work in the cellars. It’s certainly not a bunch of artsy winemakers wondering around gazing at ferments, except at some very small production wineries. No, your hands are totally messed up with deep cuts and scrapes and you are filthy and tired. Basically you are in survival mode. Up at 6.30 am to start at 7 and home around 9 pm, occasionally later.

So it was with great pleasure that I put on a suit and tie and went to the office, because everyone knows that office jobs are a doss by comparison. Send a fax, wow, peruse a competitor’s brochure and slam it, wonder around and seem intelligent, organize a “winemaker” dinner for yourself, a tough life.

I was fortunate to be the assistant to the owner, and basically did anything he needed. Pick up the kids, organize a tasting for a client, write faxes for him in English, and go to Singapore when he couldn’t be bothered.

The owner was the only person in the company who could speak English. So when it came to dealing with international clients it was either him, or nobody. And with a 350,000 case operation trading the classic Grands Crus Classes worldwide, producing wine at their own 6 chateaux, and churning out negociant wines under at least 150 different labels, well this was no small affair. So it was impossible for him to cover all the global markets and see all our clients on a twice yearly basis. So one day, at the last minute, I was dispatched to Singapore in his place. I had been working there 6 weeks and was 23. I did my last trip 11 years later.

It never ceases to amaze me how the sales and marketing operations of some European producers works in terms of human resources. In our case there were over 100 people that worked in production, and there were 2 in sales and marketing, which included the owner, so really there was only 1 guy who did sales… Alors!

In Bordeaux such salesman are viewed with tremendous suspicion by the production teams, as if they come from the dark side. Yet these 2 people are expected to cover France (one of them), and the rest of the world for the other – keep it simple. Of course this is not always the case at all companies, many of whom are well staffed. But it is in fact quite common.

These people spend 4-6 months of the year travelling to see clients, attend wine trade fairs, speak at conferences and events, and guzzle wine till the wee hours in the depths of Japan with their importer, with conversation through an interpreter. It can be a very long night. When theses salesmen get back home to the office, there are visitors to receive, labels to create, offers to make, samples to send, and trips to be planned. I’d much rather be a tour guide.

What always struck me as bizarre in France was that the commercial structure was so light compared to places like the USA or Chile where companies often have Directors of Marketing, PR, Hospitality, Clubs, and even in some cases a “Communications” guy, let’s make that Senior Vice President. Marketing in the New World is much more dynamic with people trained in this skill at top wine business schools and then running highly organized corporate sales machines. Of course the statistic is something like 90% of California wine is made by 10 companies and so you’d expect this at that size, but even a 350,000 case winery in the New World would have more than 2 people in sales and marketing…

But this lean commercial structure was my good fortune. It was decided that perhaps it would be useful to have another person in the company who could speak English. For the next 8 years I was lucky to be the Global Export Director for one of the best family owned producer/negociants on the Right Bank. The fun was about to begin.

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….