We learned the first day that Taipei is considered a more sophisticated market these days, moreso than Shanghai because they buy more and and more diverse wines, but they buy almost exclusively on “score.” Clearly that’s a generalization, and readers of this site probably would argue that doesn’t seem like sophistication, but this is what we’re dealing with here.
On a visit to the Shanghai Wine Exchange we discovered what the high net worth Chinese is doing with his relatively new money — investing in trophy wines, but almost nothing else of any lesser stature. We’ve been trying to build a picture of the market here in the People’s Republic, but all we’ve got at this point are generalizations that border on stereotypes.
Who are our customers going to be? The richest segment of the population who love wine but trade it like commodities, or perhaps the 300 million middle-class who know almost nothing of wine but that they aspire to drink more of it?
Is it true the Chinese consumer pours Sprite or Coke into their $800 dollar claret? We didn’t see it but we’re assured by everyone that it happens. Any newly moneyed person is bound to commit excesses that seem ridiculous, that’s nothing so unusual. Do the same people have no use for white wine, drinking only red for its symbolic color? (Red is many things, all positive, including happiness, fortune, celebration and good business.) Well, yes that seems to be true. As we noticed already, the consumption of wine is a special occasion, and that calls for red. But the whites are absolutely appreciated too — our companions on this trip quickly began to understand that traditionally whites open the meal, followed by the red.
What about what we know to be a general lack of wine knowledge here? Well, that’s definitely true outside of the trade, and even there we find there is a lack of understanding. Since France got here first, the knowledge of U.S. wines is practically nil — and if there is anything less than nil that’s what they know about New York wine. (Gosh — is a lack of understanding of New York wines so uncommon here either come to think of it?)
When we placed our wines in front of them the reception was so incredibly positive though…remember your last great wine discovery? Our audiences loved the wine, and not in just a polite way — they were determined that they would prove it to us. More on that in Nan Tong.
When wine is framed in ceremony and tradition, and posited as a culture in and of itself, that seemed to make sense to them — naturally. The culture of drinking, especially for business, is a complex and very intense ritual, and not for the weak of constitution. It is downright dangerous. You see, in America, we do our business first then have a party to celebrate. They party first, if only to test your mettle, and your faith in the endeavor. Nothing happens without this, and nothing happens without the honored guests from the local government. The government officials are professional dinner guests as well as qualified bureaucrats. If they like your presentation, and they like the wine, and you are able to hang with them — respecting their place in the city, respecting their culture, and of course praising the loveliness of the city — business can proceed, and sometimes much, much more successfully.
Nan Tong City
It was easy to praise Nan Tong City. It is an industrial city producing a great deal of high-quality textiles, just a three hour drive from Shanghai.
Our group saw both sides of this mid-size city (seven million people!) from the densely, smoggy-but-modern living conditions to the 1000- plus acre central public park which is dominated by the beautiful Hua River. Twenty eight bridges decorated by lights and a stunning green lit tree lined walkways on both sides stretch for 28 kilometers. Dragon boats and highly decorated barges that carry passengers (like us) on a leisurely cruise are available, as well as small two person crafts that seem to make for a romantic “date night”.
Nan Tong City’s government was in attendance for the stunning banquet (Sam Sheehy from Winery of Elicottville and Andreas Vizcarra counted forty-seven courses before losing track I think) we were given to celebrate a new beginning for New York wines in this city. Actually it was our second banquet of the day here! Toasts were made, and quite a lot of them. This was also the sixth or seventh time we stood up one at a time (to polite applause) and described our wineries, New York wines, and how honored we were to be with them.
The abalone we were served at one of the great feasts
Having been through this before so many times, our speeches took a turn for the interesting. For myself, I spoke a minute on how old wine culture is in the west and why China would embrace it. Lou Damiani of his eponymous Finger Lakes winery took the time to tell a couple of jokes (you would probably recognize quickly) that were well received, and Phillip Dunsmore from Brotherhood led them through a simplified how-to on tasting wines that they loved.
Brian Goldstein, our state’s attache on foreign agricultural trade instructed us to walk to each of their tables for a more individualized toast that meant downing four full glasses of wine one right after the other to great cheers and congratulations.
On separate occasions the city’s deputy commissioner determined that Nan Tong City would embrace New York wines to the tune of thousands of cases.
Of course, we will see what happens but it is quite the compliment.
In welcoming us to the banquet, one of the city’s chief commissioners alluded oh-so-gently to the unfortunate China bashing comments our Presidential candidates made in the last debate — reminding anyone listening that politics is still politics. But no matter, because by the end of the night this was about the wine, and a new friendship with a city I hadn’t heard of five days prior.
Yes, we came to sell wine — but we learned very clearly what it means to do business with China. It requires an extreme level of patience bordering on the bizarre. Bizarre only to us though. Anyone expecting to return home with orders was sorely disappointed. But anyone who left not understanding the stunning foundation for the future we built with our presence here was simply not paying attention.
This isn’t about one winery, it’s about the whole of our industry and that’s no exaggeration. It is true that on this trip we did no formal tastings to speak of, poured only two wines with dinner, and the same two every time, and for most of us we hardly touched a bottle of wine at all short of looking at them on display. This dismayed us until we realized what our mission was to first introduce our faces — not our products. And to be liked as people.
Sound silly to you? Well my friend — welcome to China. Meet the new boss. This is how it gets done.
So what now? That’s coming next time