The first Fete le Vin | Can this festival save Bordeaux in China?

It’s no secret that times are tough for wine in China, with imports falling and local producers struggling. Many in the trade wonder how to reach more consumers. Many continue to focus on classes, dinners and events that attract those who are already fans of wine, if not a particular brand or region.

Given this, it was inspiring — unexpectedly so — to join the first Bordeaux Fete Le Vin / Bordeaux Wine Festival in continental China, this month in Beijing’s Miyun County. This was a test run for Beijing as an annual stop on a Fete Le Vin circuit that includes Brussels, Liverpool and Quebec City.

The festival was held in Miyun’s Gubei Water Town, providing another surprise. I’ve been to many recreations of or restored historical sites in China and often found them a bit cheesy. But I thoroughly enjoyed this one for its texture: bridges and waterways. squares and streets, shops and towers. It nestles below the Great Wall of China’s Simatai section. Which is illuminated each night. I can’t believe I hadn’t been to Gubei before. A few official photos:

Back to the Bordeaux Fete Le Vin. My trip was funded by the organizers and I hitched a ride to Miyun with some French diplomatic and business people. Once at Gubei, I witnessed the traditional “It’s really nice to be here” “It’s really nice to have you” “I hope we can work together” “I hope so, too” meetings with local officials, joined a general tour of Gubei and the festival site, and did more than my fair share of ganbei (bottoms up!) drinking. Plus, I attended the opening ceremony, one with Fete Le Vin’s Christophe Chateau attending and some pretty colorful performances!

I also slipped away twice to experience the Fete Le Vin by myself.

Bordeaux is the best known wine region in China but its share is falling here. And one challenge is to reach new consumers. Keystone events like Simply Bordeaux and Unions Des Grand Crus are popular and draw a clientele already inclined to Bordeaux. It’s the same with wine dinners, which tend to be pricey and in a format — sitting beside strangers — not popular in China.

The Fete Le Vin has the potential to equally draw Bordeaux fans and total newcomers. On the Sunday I visited, 18,000 people wound through Gubei and, before arriving, most likely had no idea that a Bordeaux festival was being held.

Their first inkling might be event banners rigged to lamp posts around the town.

Their second, perhaps a giant map / explanation near the festival site.

Their third, an entrance cut out in the shape of a decanter and featuring French colors.

They would also see 50 white-topped tents, one brand per tent, brilliant in the October sun, at the foot of a mountain crowned with the Great Wall.

Those tents encircled Bordeaux Wine School / L’Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux, with classes like “how to taste wine” available.

These consumers also have spending power. Entry to Gubei is RMB 150, ~EUR / USD 20, per person. On top of the expense of getting from and to the site, there is the cost of meals and, for many, accommodation.

The point is people who have a decent amount of disposable income and woke up with no idea they might drink wine — might well end up trying a few brands, taking a class, and leaving with a memory of Bordeaux and a souvenir wine glass that inspire them to find and buy more wine on their own.

There were lots of issues with this inaugural festival. Having three levels of tickets based on wine quality was confusing for some. Easy-to-access info about the wineries would be useful: perhaps a QR code on each tent for looking up a wine’s details, including where to buy, for those too timid to ask directly. And so on. This time was a learning experience and a good one.

The key thing is the Fete La Vin is an intriguing model for getting to new consumers. I liked the tasting glass and cover. I liked how easily attendees could pop into the wine school. And I loved the setting. Along with the fair, there is a regular Peking Opera performance in the facing tower. And a colorful nightly drone show overhead. And, once those flying objects dim, the Great Wall glowing in the distance. Another glass of wine while I gaze at that and enjoy my surroundings? Yes, please, sil vous plait.

Note: See here for a bunch of Fete Le Vin photos from Miyun County. I’ll also soon have more details about this project, including an interview with founder Zhang Dongli.

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