Wine Word: Frank Yglesias of California Grapes on wine in China

Frank Yglesias


By Jim Boyce

I recently met with Frank Yglesias of California Grapes International in his office here in Beijing. We talked about issues facing importers, the wines in the CGI portfolio, and his plans to open California wine bar here in May. He agreed to do a longer interview via email. Here it is:

What is the process for adding a California wine to your portfolio, from the point of connecting with the winery to making the wine available to customers here in China?

We are the largest SKU holders of California wines in China with over 300 in our portfolio. Our process is a multilayer one starting in California. My partners there are homegrown Californians: Brian Bumgarner, our CVO (Chief Vintner Officer), has well over 15 years of experience blending and crafting California wines, while Jeff Crittenden, our CEO, and Jeffrey Wieser, our CLO (Chief Logistics Officer), know the ins and outs of consolidating, shipping, logistics and export document management. These skill sets are of the essence since most wineries in California concentrate on producing wine, not exporting wine.

Our California team takes a hands-on approach and selectively chooses esoteric wineries throughout California’s AVA’s [American Viticultural Areas]. We look for unique varietals and unique stories. We believe that besides the wine, the wineries have a story to tell, and it is our mission to share it with consumers.

Once we identify the wines to ship to China, we educate the wineries on the Chinese market and our responsibility in China to their brands and their wines. We take the same “mother hen” passion that they have and export it with the  wines.

In China, our company is a WOFE [wholly owned foreign enterprise], and we have all the legal documents to clear Customs and register CIQ [China Inspection and Quarantine] labels, owning the entire process from arrival in China to our warehouse and eventually to our clients. Our strategy is DtC (Direct to Consumers), or, as we like to say, “from grape to glass”. No one touches it but us.

What is the biggest misconception California wine producers have about the China market?

What I call the “fool’s gold syndrome”. The world is overflowing with analytical data about the Chinese market. But does that make the data right? Not necessarily. When you have lived in China, trying to place your stake in the ground, then you get a realistic view of the Chinese market. Everything that shines is not gold.

What are the three biggest mistakes people make when they are importing wine into China?

When importing California wines, I see these common mistakes or pitfalls.

  • Making California wines price-driven. This is a mistake. No “two-buck chuck”.
  • The private labeling of California wines. This is very bad because it removes the history from the wine and the understanding of what it took to create it.
  • A lack of understanding of the California wine industry and its vintages and grape varieties.

You’ve told me you think poor selling techniques are a major reason restaurants don’t move more wine in Beijing. What do you mean by that?

Wine sales in the restaurant industry in the U.S. are driven by interaction between the customer and wait staff. As a former restaurant owner in Miami, I love the interaction I get in a restaurant in the U.S. Sadly, the wait staff in China typically lack the skill and education that are needed for such interaction and that are of the essence of the promotion of wine sales in the restaurant industry.

There is a big difference between good service and being subservient. The practice here of no “tipping” does not help promote better service. It is a vicious cycle in China: consumers don’t tip because they get bad service and the wait staff does not give good service because they get no tips. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario.

My favorite place to drink wine in Beijing, because of the interaction, is Sureno at the Opposite House Hotel in Sanlitun. The wait staff are genuinely friendly, they know you by name, they know their wines and they can make recommendations. They smile, they look you in the eye, and do so with a respectful elegance. Kudos to the team at Sureno.

What would be the one white and one red you would open to impress someone?

For the white, hands down the varietal would be a California Chardonnay. Most people, and even most restaurants, kill a Chardonnay because they chill it too much. It’s not ice wine, and it’s not a Sauvignon Blanc, so  it only needs to be slightly colder that a red. I would open a bottle of 2005 Reserve Chardonnay, from the Spring Mountain district in Napa Valley, produced by Vineyard 7&8.

For the red, my favorite varietal is Zinfandel. Its spicy taste and bold finish put it into a league of its own. I would open and decant a bottle of 2003 Zinfandel from Easton wineries in Shenandoah Valley. This “Zin” pared with Korean food is out of this world. You would think the spiciness in the Zin would not pair with kimchi, but it does, and works with the freshness of the vegetables wrapped around the barbecued meat.

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