Given more than a year of buzz and rumors, I half-expected The Wine Gallery to be a mess of trade displays and tributes to top brands, VIP areas and retail spaces, cellars and classrooms when wine distributor ASC finally opened it in Beijing last Thursday night. Sort of like a blend of six grapes varieties that donâ€™t quite work together. In fact, I did find all of those thingsâ€”without the mess.
The Wine Gallery is an impressive project that should appeal to everyone from consumers to wine students to the trade: those in the bar, restaurant, and hotel sector. Iâ€™ve read the PR material (I really wish people wouldnâ€™t write things like â€œtotal merchandizing solutionsâ€) and am sure it will get plenty of â€œcut and pasteâ€ treatment, so here is a personal take on this newcomer to Sanlitun North Village.
Both CEO Don St. Pierre Jr. and Beijing GM Ethan Perk stressed that retail wine is not the focus. Fair enough, but it will be for some of us. I canâ€™t tell you how many times I get a call from someone who wandering around Sanlitun in search of good wine and/or glasses for a birthday or wedding gift. The Wine Gallery will be a good option and I hope we see some bargains and package deals.
ASC is conscious of not cannibalizing on major retail customers such as Jenny Louâ€™s or Carrefour, so The Wine Gallery features higher-end wines. There are displays about the first floor but most bottles for sale are concentrated in one long section of shelves, almost all of them are priced above RMB200, usually much more, and they range from Gaja and Guigal up to Penfoldâ€™s Grange for RMB6000. There is also a display of Riedel glasses and decanters. Need wine and glasses? Done.â€¦
(Speaking of which, five years ago I showed up at the ASC office on a Saturday looking exactly for thatâ€¦ wine and glasses for a wedding gift. The office was closed but Simon Liang was working that day and let me tag along to the then-ASC warehouse out on the Fifth Ring Road to pick out a gift. Such service gets remembered.)
St. Pierre says a major focus of The Wine Gallery is to show those in the restaurant, bar, and hotel business what products and services ASC offers. These include three brands of wine fridges (two imported, one local),Â two kinds of preservation machines that can keep open wine fresh for up to three weeks (a compact â€œpodâ€ style as well as an eight bottle card-based display unit, similar to those in Modo and costing well over RMB100000), and samples of touch-screen services.
The second floor includes two private dining rooms, a Western-style one that seats ten and a Chinese-style one that seats up to twenty, and a â€œloungeâ€ area large enough to hold numerous tasting areas and some of those wine-by-the-glass machines. This place also has a rooftop that can fit more than 100 people. In terms of food, The Wine Gallery lacks a full kitchen and will instead rely on catering, with The Opposite House and Brasserie Flo being two of the options. This gives ASC the flexibility for everything from small private events to product launches, in the heart of Sanlitun.
There is a 12-seat classroom on the second floor that Perk told me is up to WSET standards. (Frankly, I think wine education starts with giving someone a RMB1000 card and setting him or her loose on those card-based wine machines.) There are also displays of brands ASC carries and these include maps, explanations of regions, and so on.
St Pierre Jr. said about 15 to 20 percent of the companyâ€™s turnover in Beijing comes from private sales (think: the wealthy). These are the people likely to be knocking back the Lafite and Sassicaia in one of the â€œcellarsâ€ at The Wine Gallery or renting one of the storage lockers (these have glass walls but I was told they are UV resistant). There is also a â€œhome cellarâ€ on display that can be adjusted for individual abodes. This one is about eight square meters, has temperature and humidity controls, and holds hundreds of bottles separated into categories such as â€œevery day drinkingâ€ and â€œspecial occasionâ€. (ASCâ€™s Noel Chi stressed the importance of such categorizing by giving personal examples of family members moseying into his stash and drinking some of his better bottles. Oops.)
Thatâ€™s a brief look at The Wine Gallery but it should give an idea of the ambition behind the project. The get-together last ThursdayÂ underscored this, with visitors given a schedule that included everything from a ten-minute Latour tasting in the wine cellar downstairs to a wine quiz in the education room upstairs. Good idea, good execution, and a good start for the Wine Cellar.
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