In Veronese Veritas | Simone Incontro on Italian wine in Shanghai

By Jim Boyce | I recently talked to a bunch of trade people about the Shanghai retail scene for a story in Meininger’s Wine Business International. As I could only use a small portion of their comments, I’ll run some extra excerpts here. First up is Simone Incontro, head of the Shanghai bureau of VinItaly—perhaps I should I have titled this post In VinItaly Veritas.

When it comes to Italian wines, what is the situation in Shanghai versus other cities?

In Shanghai, you can immediately notice that Italian wine, apart from a few exceptions, isn’t on the “most wanted” shelves in wine stores, supermarkets or lists at bars, clubs and restaurants. But it is undeniable that in Shanghai there are signs of hope. More and more Italian restaurants are now opening and the Italian community is more active than ever before. An increasing number of Chinese are flying to Italy and, when they return, in addition to Italian food, they want to drink Italian wine.

More wine bars, such as Uva, Salute and Funkadeli, offer local consumers a typical Italian ‘aperitivo’. These are places that attract wine beginners and wine lovers. Customers can start with an Italian sparkling wine and then, little by little, may shift to southern Italian wine like Primitivo and wine from Sicily or turn to more expensive bottles such as Barolo, Brunello and Amarone.

Italian producers almost always choose Shanghai as the first stop of their trips to China. Even today, you need to have a showcase in Shanghai. But we have to find different ways to promote ourselves and, let us not forget, China is not only Shanghai. We have to explain to Chinese consumers about the great beauty of Italian wine, to speak about the territory without being boring, and producers need to have a presence. We experienced this in Vinitaly China for the Shanghai Wine & Dine Festival last September, with a winemaker from Marche, Guerrieri, who was very popular during the festival. The consumer wants to see the producer, to get in touch, and to understand why the wine is unique.

Organizations such as Vinitaly, and Italian producers in general, have to think about where they can be the most effective. What retail channels and promotions give the best opportunities in Shanghai?

Shanghai’s retail market is highly fragmented and composed of many small and medium-sized retailers. In recent months, we have also been facing a new phenomenon: imported food and wine stores. They are opening almost in every street of downtown Shanghai. If you search on Baidu (葡萄酒专卖店 上海 / wine stores Shanghai), the results don’t help wine lovers at all. You may find a map with some wine stores. Most of them don’t even exist anymore.

In Shanghai, you have a great selection of wines in Pudao on Wukang Road, Carrefour in Gubei District, and CityShop and Olè in Jing’an and Xujahui districts. Yesmywine and are opening many new stores in strategic areas and the service, environment and selection of wine are surprising. We can’t forget the importance of the Yesmywine and’s app, BottlesXO, very popular in the expat community. In Shanghai, Yihaodian and Tmall are strong as well, and we can’t forget the strong influence of WeChat and of WeChat stores. If you are a producer who wants to sell your wine here, you have to study all these players before making any decision.

If an Italian producer wanted to enter the China market and start in Shanghai, what advice would you give?

Come to China. The very first thing is to visit this country. See Shanghai but also the second- and third-tier cities. Producers should see where people can find the wine, who buys it, and how. They should go to both Western and local restaurants and ask for the wine list. At Vinitaly International, we work daily with both the media and the wine industry. China is the only other country where we have opened an office. We have been present in China for the past four years and it is a day-by-day process to promote Italian wine and to select buyers to invite to our main trade fair in Verona.

We work closely with our Chinese partners for both our showcases in Shanghai and Chengdu, where Vinitaly International seeks to ensure that producers have the best selection of importers and distributors. To this purpose we have chosen the Shangri-La Hotel Fair in Chengdu, during the most important week for Chinese professionals in the alcohol Industry, the China Food and Drinks Fair (CFDF). This exhibition is just the final result of our day-to-day work. Besides using traditional formats such as trade fairs, B2B [business to business] programs, off-site showcases and grand tastings, we use extensive social media promotion and educational initiatives through the Vinitaly International Academy directed by Doctor Ian D’Agata.

Could you talk a bit about VinItaly projects in Shanghai, such as Wine & Dine, and why this was considered an effective way to promote wines?

In Greater China, we have two b2b showcases: one in Hong Kong during the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair (HKIWSF) and one in Chengdu at the CFDF. And thanks to our cooperation with the city’s most influential newspaper, Shanghai Morning Post, we also manage the Italian pavilion at Shanghai Wine & Dine Festival, the most important b2c (business-to-consumer) food and wine event in China.

Together with local importers, our media partners, the Italian government and Italian regional associations we organize a rich three-day calendar of events, wine tastings and master classes. There have been only two editions of this festival, but this year local wine importers have already witnessed a significant increase in their sales compared to the first edition.

As a resident and consumer in Shanghai, what’s your personal experience of the wine scene, and what do you expect in the next five years?

The wine scene is growing. And it is changing fast. I can see more and more wine lovers. One place that could be considered an example of what Shanghai may become is outside downtown, in the Hongqiao area, on Hongmei Road. The part of Hongmei road close to “Laowai Jie“, a famous area for both expatriates and Shanghainese, is very interesting because you can find Shanghainese restaurants together with Italian, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean ones. In less than one mile, you can also find many coffee bars, imported food shops, and some of the most active wine store chains, such as 1919, CHEERS and CityShop, as well as traditional Chinese liquor shops. This part of Hongmei road is different from other areas in Shanghai: there are more people in the stores and the managers smile and offer free tastings. It is a very nice environment where the customer may taste and buy wine, most of them priced between 100 and 200 yuan.

Photo: China Wine News

Note: Check out other interviews in this series, including with Oliver Zhou of Vinehoo, Charles Carrard of Paradox, Alberto Fernandez of Torres / Everwines, Marcus Ford of Pudao and Campbell Thompson of The Wine Republic.

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