Leap of faith: Will Temple restaurant light the way for online wine in China?

By Jim Boyce

What happens later this month when a restaurant hidden in a temple complex just meters from Beijing’s Forbidden City becomes the umpteenth operation to launch an online wine ‘cellar’ in China? Perhaps an enlightening moment for wine sales and education in this country.

Talk about China’s burgeoning online wine market usually focuses on heavily funded and tech-savvy firms that move high volumes at low prices. The shiny example is yesmywine.com.

When Temple Restaurant Beijing (TRB) enters the fray, it will be as an already successful and trusted business. Managed by Ignace Lecleir, well-known in Beijing for handling the opening of Maison Boulud, Temple is widely regarded as among the city’s top restaurants, scoring high for food, service, decor and attention to detail — from the pre-dinner drinks to the treats given to departing guests.

This goes for the wine list, arguably the city’s best, given its size (~800 options), range (more than a dozen countries represented with a solid lineup of Chinese wines), prices (from rmb210 to tens of thousands of yuan per bottle) and value (markups are generally more than fair for a place of this stature in Beijing).

Will Temple’s online wine effort challenge the big guys for volume, revenue or media coverage? No. But will it appeal to that seemingly elusive group of consumers in China that actually likes wine, that wants to learn about it, has the income to regularly buy it and sees it as part of an enjoyable lifestyle? I think so.

“One reason for this project is that we work with about 40 wine suppliers. We spend a tremendous amount of time to make sure we have the right suppliers, that everything is temperature controlled, and so on,” says Lecleir. “We find we have a lot of requests from customers asking if we would sell our wines [for delivery] and I thought it would be interesting to take some of our knowledge of wine and use it for the market in Beijing.”

Lecleir also notes that his particular clientele is not the reflex Bordeaux buyer often found in China. “We sell much more Burgundy, and we are selling quite a bit of Chinese wine,” he says. “Chinese people tend to want something from abroad but lots of expats and visitors from around Asia are interested in Chinese wines.”

Some project details:

  • Range: The cellar will start with 150 wines not already on the list. These will tend to be wines not easy to find in the market. There will be package deals available and Lecleir is looking at starting a monthly wine club at several price points.
  • Price: Most will sell below rmb300, with around one-third below rmb200. “The purpose is wines you probably want to enjoy when you come home, everyday drinking wines, but everyday wines made with passion and love, so maybe not from the big guys,” says Lecleir. “We see some nice biodynamic wines out of Shanghai. We’ll see if there is a market for them. Personally, I think there is.”
  • Service: Lecleir says the website is simple but one option will be an online sommelier. “People can have a dialogue, can ask questions in Chinese or English,” he says. “They can say, ‘I’m thinking of doing a roast chicken at home, what kind of wine would you recommend?’ And like in the restaurant, we can recommend a wine and the person can buy it or not buy it.”
  • Delivery: At first, it will be next-day. If the market is there, Temple will look at 30-minute to 60-minute delivery. And the restaurant will handle delivery itself rather than outsource the service. “That’s why we want to go step by step. We start with next-day delivery, so we can control everything better, and then take the next step,” says Lecleir. “If I outsource, I never know what’s going to happen.” It will also allow Temple to look after the details. “If someone orders two bottles of white plus a bottle of Champagne, we can ask if they want any of it chilled, we can offer that kind of service,” he says.

I’m not saying other sites are not making efforts to reach such niches, but that the Temple project strikes me as noteworthy since it comes from a business with a loyal following, a reputation for quality and service, and an attitude that sees online wine sales as an extended service, not as the raison d’etre.

All in all, it is safe to say this will be a work in progress, much as with Temple.

“There are a lot of question as we go live,” says Lecleir. “It’s a bit like with the philosophy of the restaurant, to start small and see what the market wants.”

You can find the TRB website here.

Temple in Beijing
Temple in Beijing

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