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By Jim Boyce
Frankie Zhao, founder of market research and promotion company Pro-Wine Training & Consultancy, has been active in China’s wine scene for nearly a decade. We talked about how he became interested in wine, his picks for newcomers, the local market, and more.
When did you first start drinking wine?
I started drinking wine in university. Basically, I didn’t like beer.
I remember drinking Dragon Seal because it was the only thing available at my school. My most vivid memory was of my twenty-first birthday, in the mid-1990s. My first girlfriend and I drank a half bottle of Dragon Seal Rose but we had no glassware, so we used bowls that had some cooking oil residue in them. It left a tint on the water [laughs].
I started drinking foreign wine in 1997 when I worked for Air China and flew overseas. I also lived in California for four months in the late-1990s. I could buy white Zinfandel from the supermarket for 3.99!
The most impressive wine I tasted then was a 1994 Chianti Classico Riserva I brought back to China. It only cost 11 dollars, but I found it to be an elegant wine with layers of aromas and flavors. I wrote a review and described it as a “dancer on my palate.” I asked my colleagues to find more of it in California, but they kept bringing back different bottles!
How did you get professionally involved with wine?
I started writing about wine for an industry magazine called China Drinks about eight years ago. In 2002 and 2003, I wrote about wine for a publishing group called Trends, for magazines like Esquire and Good Housekeeping.
I also started my own nonprofit wine club in Beijing in 2001. It was called Frankie’s Club – hey, it was easier with that name!
We held a tasting every month with 10 to 40 people and I sent out an email newsletter twice per week. The newsletter included summaries of the tastings, notes about the wines we tried, comments other people made about the wines, and so on.
I soon realized that while it is easy to manage a party with 20 people, doing one for 100 people is very difficult, so it was going to be impossible to make money from the club.
In 2005, I started to think about how I could earn a living in the wine field. One way was with the media, so in 2005 I got involved in Decanter’s Chinese edition. For 10 months, I wrote articles and helped do the initial marketing. The problem was that the owners wanted to keep costs low. For example, the first three issues had a buyer’s guide, but the prices were listed in pounds, not renminbi!
You are now doing consulting. What is your take on the market?
China’s market works in terms of wineries, sales, and distribution, but the problem is service – finding people who know quality wine or restaurants that are able to properly serve and recommend wine. There is also no real marketing research or branding.
I am focusing on the service end. My company’s core activities are promotion and market research, which includes studies of Chinese consumers. We are in contact with wine organizations from other countries, such as France and Italy, to help promote them here.
You find the market in China divided into two kinds of distributors. On one hand, you have Summergate, Montrose, Torres, ASC, and so on focused on selling foreign wines to foreigners, such as clients at five-star hotels. They don’t have a problem communicating with these consumers because a majority of them are foreigners who know something about wine.
On the other hand, you have distributors who are selling wines to Chinese people, with Aussino being the biggest one. If you want to consider potential, you need to look at this Chinese market.
The economy is growing and people are drinking more wine. Look at the major cities: in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, annual consumption per capita is about 2.6 liters per person. That’s a lot, given the overall average for China is 0.5 liters and five years ago was 0.3 liters. We see the market growing, including for foreign wine, even though most wine being drunk is Chinese.
Let’s say I’m in China, I’m new to wine, and I want to buy five wines to try. What would you recommend?
I always recommend taking a systematic approach. I suggest a case of wine that includes wines of different varietals, countries, and styles.
I would probably recommend a Muscato or a sweet sparkling wine, a White Zinfandel, and a semi-sweet German Riesling. On the dry side, I would pick an un-oaked or slightly oaked New World Chardonnay, a lighter fruitier New World wine like an Australian Merlot or a Pinot Noir, and a more tannic wine like a heavy Cabernet Sauvignon or a hearty Shiraz. This mix will help people decide some of their basic preferences – white or red, dry or sweet, fruity or heavy. They they can do some more exploring.