Feisty fifteen: Patricio de la Fuente-Saez on changes and lessons in the China wine market

Importer and distributor Links recently celebrated its fifteenth year in business and I asked co-owner Patricio de la Fuente-Saez a few questions about changes in the China wine market, lessons he’s learned in the trade, and favorite wines tried.

What is the biggest lesson learned during the past 15 years in the business?

One of the main ones, and what we call rule number one at Links, is don’t work with assholes. Life gets a lot less complicated if you surround yourself with people you like. You sleep better at night!

Our motto at Links is work hard, play harder. We love to eat and drink and party and this really seems to have kept our team together. We have six staff that have been with us for 17 years and about 25 staff that have been with us more than 10 years.

In order to thank our sales team, I take them for a one-week all-expenses-paid trip to Europe every year. We obviously visit wine regions and take this opportunity to visit our suppliers.

This year we will travel with 56 people to Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Montalcino, Paris and Champagne. These trips are a great way for our teams from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macau and Hong Kong to hang out, get to know each other and visit the wineries we work with. It also allows us to show the wineries who we are, what we do and how we do it. We tend to have very big lunches and dinners and everyone really lets go.

Another important thing to remember is to not grow too fast: quality first, quantity second. I always say the faster you grow the faster you die and when looking at a lot of our competitors in China I see this was their major downfall. If you are growing too fast, wanting to do everything, one day you run out of money and need to sell your company.

At Links we would rather be a bit smaller and still be able to spend quality time with our customers, suppliers and staff. As a family owned company, I think this is what it’s all about and this what sets us apart from the others.

The China wine market has gone through massive changes since Links started in 2000. What do you see as three key changes for the Hong Kong market?

Fifteen years is a long time and there have been many changes but a few really stand out.

One is screw caps. When we started in 2000, screw caps were frowned upon and seen as some kind of ‘new world’ marketing gimmick. Most of our customers refused to take any wines with screw caps.

Michel Laroche, who we worked with before he sold his company, was one of the first French to experiment with screw cap as he thought it was the perfect closure. In order to really make his point he only bottled his grand cru and premier cru with screw caps. Nowadays things have obviously changed a lot and screw cap, if anything, has really become the preferred closure for the majority of outlets.

Another change is that New World wines are present in Hong Kong in a big way. I believe most people thought it was fun to occasionally try a New World wine but the majority of our portfolio and the market in those early days was Old World.

We have seen a massive shift where really it has become fifty-fifty in terms of New World and Old World. I must also say the quality of a lot of New World wines has increased tremendously and is on par with the rest of the world.

I still remember clearly a wine trip to Australia in 2002 where, after a wine tasting at an established winery, all I could taste was the charcoal from the toasting of the barrels. Those heavy oak barrels are gone and been replaced by balance and elegance.

I love Australian wine. I think Australia has become one of the most exciting wine places in the world and we will continue adding Aussie wines to the portfolio. It’s the same for California and Oregon, both of which I love.

Finally, sommeliers didn’t really exist in 2000. Other than perhaps a handful of ‘sommeliers’ at the top hotels we didn’t really see any. Most of the sommeliers were the beverage managers of the hotels and had a very basic wine knowledge: fish with white wine, meat with red wine, and so on.

If I look at all our customers now, in 2015, I see sommeliers everywhere I go. Everyone is studying WSET and wine has become one of the most popular things to talk about. I don’t know how many sommeliers there are in Hong Kong but it’s a lot.

How about changes in cities like Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and beyond?

Starting from 1998, I used to travel a lot around China, practically every week, and I must have visited over 50 cities in China. Whenever and wherever we went when we came back to Guangzhou in the old days and I felt at home.

Guangzhou at that time had nicer hotels, roads and restaurants than most other Chinese cities. It was still a very small market and I remember clearly all the problems we used to have with importing our wines. I will also always remember our first wholesalers there who used to pay in cash: one shoe box was equivalent to something like RMB5,000. I also remember how many cigarettes we used to smoke during meetings. We probably smoked more than we drank and luckily that has stopped!

Shanghai was always interesting and my first visit was in the summer of 1998. We entered the Shanghai market quite late and the main reason for this was that every time I went to Shanghai–and Beijing as well–all I could see was a three-way battle involving ASC, Summergate and Montrose. These three companies were constantly fighting with each other and taking each other’s accounts, salespeople and everything else that went with it. Mainly for this reason we decided early to enter Shanghai and Beijing later, eventually in 2007. I really had no interest in becoming the fourth fighter in what seemed like an eternal battle.

In 1998 I remember taking a construction lift up the Jin Mao Tower to have a look at the Grand Hyatt which was then a construction site. As a matter of fact, most of Pudong was a construction site in those days. I also remember that it only took us 10 minutes to drive through the whole of Shanghai. There were no traffic jams and thousands of bicycles. Things have changed a bit and Shanghai has now become one of the biggest and most dynamic cities in the world with a selection of wines that equals most cosmopolitan cities. We very much enjoy our business there and we have a great team.

I will never forget my first visit to Beijing in the summer of 1998. It was one of those beautiful hot dry days with a blue Beijing sky. We had finished a Chilean wine tasting and some friends took me around Tiananmen Square. There was a small breeze, you could see the beautiful trees and bicycles everywhere, and people were happy and smiling. I was seriously considering moving to Beijing after that trip. The food was amazing, the people were so incredibly friendly and I loved buying antiques in the weekend markets. Beijing, like the rest of China, has grown tremendously. Bikes have been replaced by cars, taxis by limousines, and VWs by Lamborghinis, but luckily the people haven’t changed and they are still great and very welcoming.

On the flip side, where do you see the China wine market in 15 years?

I have always said that Hong Kong and China have a lot in common in terms of the development of the wine business. The main difference is that China seems to do everything a lot faster than Hong Kong does. This is probably because of a growing appetite and hunger for great wines.

I am very excited about where the market is going. The China wine market has matured a lot. Where in the old days a single supplier would often take up an entire wine list, we really now see that sommeliers want to have selection of the best wines they can get regardless of who the supplier is. Wines are now chosen in their merits and qualities and less so on personal relationships. This is a very positive change because it means the consumer is getting exposed to different types of wines and getting better deals with more interesting wine lists.

We have also seen the development of the Chinese wine industry and there are some very good wines coming out of China now. I am sure that the quality of the wines will continue to improve.

What brands have been in the Links portfolio the longest?

The Links business model has changed a bit in the last 15 years. When we started our business, our portfolio consisted of 50 percent spirits and 50 percent wines. I really enjoyed the spirits part but they are often judged more on marketing qualities — advertisements, DJ events, promotional materials, sponsorship and so on — and less on the actual quality of the product. For this reason we dropped our entire spirits portfolio with the exception of Danzka vodka from Denmark who we have been working with for 17 years now.

In terms of wines, one of our first suppliers was Canaletto from Italy and, again, 17 years later we are still working with them. Both Danzka and Canaletto were part of the portfolio of the company I worked for prior to starting Links in 2000.

Some of your wine dinners have plenty of hi-jinks. Do you have a few anecdotes you could share with us?

At Links Concept we only work with 100 percent family-owned wineries. Among the wineries we represent are some of the oldest in the world, such as Antinori, JL Chave, Louis Latour, Louis Roederer and Billecart-Salmon.

Working with families is great and you get to meet lots of characters. Obviously, number one on the list of great characters is David Powell, formerly with Torbreck. I could write a book just about him. I think one of the most memorable years was when he got the logo of a Danish restaurant branded on his backside. That already sounds pretty crazy, so how can you top that ? Easy. Make sure you show everyone your backside at every dinner for a year and people will always remember you! Amazing guy.

When I interviewed you in 2009, you talked about intriguing tastings of everything from 1831 Chateau d’Yquem to century-old shipwreck Champagne to every Dow’s Vintage Port from 1945 to 2003. What are some interesting tastings since then?

I am very lucky in Hong Kong to be exposed to some of the most amazing wines on a very regular basis. In the last few months I have really fallen in love with Bordeaux wines. This is quite funny because Links is one of the companies that does not focus on Bordeaux wines. I always say Bordeaux is for drinking, not for selling !

I love drinking Bordeaux from the 70’s and my favourite vintages are 1970, 1971 and 1975. These wines are showing so amazingly well now and in terms of price they are very affordable. This really shows that wines that are stored well will drink well, regardless of the vintage.

I love discovering odd vintages such as 1964, 1967 and 1969 and tasting them because more often than not these are exceptional wines. Some of my favourites wines from the 70’a are Beychevelle, Brane-Cantenac, Giscours, La Lagune and of course Latour and Haut-Brion.

Last week was my father’s 70th birthday and we opened some great wines. The highlights were a magnum of 1945 L’Eglise-Clinet and bottles of 1945 Clos de la Sarpe, Lafite Rothschild and Warre’s Port.

Other than this I have a great love for old California wines from the 60’s and 70’s, wines such as Ridge, Mondavi, Diamond Creek, Heitz, Montelena, Gemello and Sterling Vineyards. These are all amazing and to me on par with some of the greatest Bordeaux wines.

If I have to think of real highlights of the last few years there would be the 1968 Sterling Vineyard, 1974 Heitz, 1975 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva and the 1974 Ridge Montebella and 1976 Ridge Petite Syrah. From Bordeaux, a 1940 Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, which in those days was appellation St. Julien, 1962 Lascombes and 1965 Vega Sicilia.

Sine Qua Non has also become one of my all time favourite wines, not just because we are their distributor, but also because of their amazing style and intensity.

Lastly I am very lucky to have a good friend that loves Madeira and has an amazing collection from the early 19th century. These wines are amazing. A few months ago we had a 1827 — I believe it was this year — and it was just spectacular and went very well with the 1976 Davidoff Chateau Margaux cigar!

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