Friday, March 2, 2007

Wine in China

'People I Know Still PutIce and Juice in Wine'
Saint-Emilion Vintner Hires Chinese Woman as EnvoyTo Court the Elite at Home

February 28, 2007; Page B1

SAINT-EMILION, France -- Last year, Yan Xin tasted wine for the first time in her life -- not any wine, but a $700 bottle of 2005 Cheval Blanc from this fabled village near Bordeaux.

"It was fruity and the alcohol wasn't too strong," says the 26-year-old from the Chinese coastal province of Jiangsu.

Yan Xin tastes one of Jean-Luc Thunevin's famous reds at his Saint-Emilion bar, L'Essentiel. She is charged with marketing Mr. Thunevin's wines in China.

The experience steered the newly minted business-school graduate away from her parents' dream of a career in pharmaceuticals and toward an idea whose time, she hopes, has come: helping her homeland learn to savor the finer things in life, one of those things being French wine. "Wine is an art," she says. "Like painting or music."

That attitude has made Ms. Yan a hot commodity among the crème de la crème of French vintners eager to groom an Asian ambassador worthy of their silky reds and fruity whites. Last month, after weighing nine job offers, she settled on a position with Jean-Luc Thunevin, a former bank teller who in the 1990s scraped together his meager savings and started Château Valandraud. Renowned critic Robert Parker considers his wines to be among the world's best reds.

Mr. Thunevin hopes Ms. Yan can help him crack the code of marketing wine that has world-class taste -- but not the backing of a famous name -- to the nouveaux riches of the Middle Kingdom. He needs the help: Last year, he managed to sell just 744 bottles on the mainland. "She speaks three languages, and her parents are doctors, so she knows people in the upper classes," he says.

Whether that will matter is an open question. Without well-schooled palates, Chinese consumers are known for favoring brand cachet over taste. The droll among Saint-Emilion's vintners like to tell the story of one Chinese businessman who orders the occasional bottle of 1982 Château Lafitte -- valued at some $2,000 -- only to mix it with Coca-Cola. Ms. Yan allows: "People I know still put ice and juice in their wine."

European trade officials say fine wine is one of the few agricultural products in which Europe enjoys a clear advantage over Asia. "We need to exploit niche products like cheese and wine," says European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson.

Since 2001, Chinese wine imports have grown to $133 million from $32 million. Wine experts think that one day, the high end of China's wine market for imports could match America's, valued at over $2 billion a year.

Elite vintners from Saint-Emilion, Médoc and other prestigious regions have the most potential in China, experts say. The low end of the market belongs to Chile, Spain and Australia.

The French education of Ms. Yan began in 2004 when she decided to pursue a master's degree in business administration in Rennes, hoping to land a spot in one of France's big pharmaceutical firms. But last spring, a cousin who imports wine to China helped her land a six-month internship at a 130-year-old château called Maison Rivière.

When owner Philippe Rivière picked her up at the Saint-Emilion train station, she introduced herself as "Jessica," a name she thought more in tune with Western culture (and one that the Chinese apply as a reference to any successful businesswoman); her Chinese name, pronounced in French, sounds exactly like the word for China (Chine, pronounced sheen).

Surrounded by romantic châteaux, "I felt like I was a princess in a movie," she says.
It didn't take long for Ms. Yan to catch the eye of Christophe Lebail, Rivière's Japan export manager. The 39-year-old Mr. Lebail, an accomplished chef, spent hours preparing sumptuous meals for the novice, developing her palate for the wonders of foie gras and pungent Reblochon cheese.

They recently moved in together.

Mr. Lebail has also helped Ms. Yan discover that some Chinese stereotypes of the French simply aren't true. "In China, people say the French are the world leaders in perfume because they don't take showers," she says.

She is puzzled, though, at how much the French seem to go on strike, and smoke. "In China, if you strike, they just tell you to go home," she says. "And I thought that in a developed country like France, people wouldn't smoke so much."

When Ms. Yan's internship with Rivière ended last November, she opted to work with Mr. Thunevin, whose Etablissements Thunevin produces 15 brands and 200,000 bottles, with annual sales around $15 million. Its finest wine sells for up to $650 a bottle.

After training, Ms. Yan will frequently travel to her homeland, where Mr. Thunevin hopes she will use her language and social skills to begin making inroads among restaurants, stores and wine dealers.

For now, Ms. Yan is a familiar sight among the wine bars and châteaux in Saint-Emilion. She walks among the cobblestones in high-heeled boots and wraps her slender frame in a fake fur coat. Fluent in Mandarin, French and English, she is also mastering the stilted argot of the sommelier.

"I used to like wines that were easy to drink," she says. "Now I believe in a long finish and a complicated structure."

She still has a few things to learn, however. One recent day, she betrayed her naïveté by asking a colleague whether the French wine world could take a lesson from Coca-Cola. Why not, she suggested, generically label all French wine as "Bordeaux," even those made in Saint-Emilion? "You can still have different kinds, like Coke light and Coke lemon," she said.

"Xin, that's against the law," said colleague Cécile Montsec, patiently explaining France's strict labeling rules based on regional classifications.

Nonplussed, Ms. Yan turned her attention to translating postings from Mr. Thunevin's blog ( into Chinese and sending email solicitations to Chinese distributors, restaurants and hotels. She's also preparing her own blog, "about what it's like to be the only Chinese person in Saint-Emilion."

Eventually, says Ms. Yan, the Chinese will warm to luxury wines. She is so confident of the market potential, she wants to be paid on commission.

In the meantime, she is still struggling with some of the basics. "Remind me, how many bottles do we manufacture a year?" Ms. Yan says to Ms. Montsec, who replied: "We don't manufacture anything, Xin. We create luxury."
Write to John W. Miller at john.miller@dowjones.com2

1 comment:

Vida Zhang Fargis said...

also read this article in WSJ online by John Miller. Very interesting. There are many wine tasting events all over Beijing and Shanghai targeting at the expat and white collar professionals. As more and more wine companies get into China market, the game is getting more interesting.

Thought you may be interested in the following two articles which is related to the wine culture (well, if you could say there is such thing called wine culture in China).

Tasting wine and drinking Chinese liquor

A Chinese Wife Buying Wine

Warm regards,

Vida Zhang Fargis
CAEA-Chinese American Etiquette Association