‘Wine can be McDonald’s, wine can be Michelin’ | Q&A with Wang Shenghan aka Lady Penguin

Wang Shenghan aka Lady Penguin is a powerful force in China’s wine scene, with her energetic videos, strong sales and over two million fans on the app Douyin alone. I asked her about everything from pairing wines with Chinese food to good starter themes for newbies to what she’s going to drink when the coronavirus crisis is finally over.

JB. My friends are opinionated about the best Beijing duck or burger or craft beer. But with wine, they are far less confident. Why do people feel this way?

LP. Over the past few decades, wine has built up an elaborate and sophisticated language. This has merit to help people experience wine aesthetically, but when used unwisely, it serves to intimidate. And most importantly, it becomes unable to reflect what wine really is about. The language of wine will continue to evolve and my mission is to make it more intuitive.

A lot of wine dinners involve individual wines paired to individual dishes but typical meals in Beijing involve four or five dishes at the same time.

If you have to choose a wine across the board, sparkling usually works better than still wine. And white and rose wine usually work better than red in the Chinese context.

I don’t like people who claim “whatever [wine] suits you”, “whatever you like is good.” I don’t like easy statements. Hierarchy exists, a ladder of quality exists. We don’t need to adhere to that game, but we don’t need to trash it, either. That game has done good and bad — I would still say more good than bad — and those who want to overthrow everything are doing more bad than good.

Have you tried Champagne with stinky tofu? Because it is very good!

The wine I would pair with stinky tofu is rose. There is magic between rose and tofu. Actually, I wrote about this. Four pairings, four different kinds of marital relations.

You also sell wines, including have your own Chilean brand, with six bottles for rmb168. People often associate price with quality. Could you talk a bit about this?

I truly think our cheapest wine, for the price we set, has the best value you can ever find. Which is why sales grew from zero to over 1 million bottles in just three years.

I think consumers do recognize value. Even if they are hesitant to tell you their opinion about a specific bottle, they vote with their purchases. We value repurchase rate over anything else.

Wine can be many things. Wine can be McDonald’s, wine can be Michelin 3-star, wine can be local food, wine can be products by those who think Michelin is too standardized and seek a higher artistic expression. I regard our Chilean bird wine as the everyday quality box lunch for our consumers.

If we sell Michelin-star food or local foods, it doesn’t mean we need to denigrate other kinds of food, right?

Well, I pair egg McMuffins with white Bordeaux, so I’m with you on this.

Very good choice! The oak influence of white Bordeaux is so in sync with the toasty bread-y flavor of McMuffins.

Speaking of food, I’m surprised how many friends have started to make ice cream or cakes or complex dishes at home during the virus crisis. This seems like a perfect time for people to start exploring wine, too. What is the best way for a newcomer to get started?

Do ‘parallel’ tastings of cool climate versus warm climate styles, new world versus old world styles, younger vintages versus older vintages, and so on . These are the most important parameters to work on even before grape varieties.

People focus too much on grape varieties. Varieties are like cooking ingredients and, of course, they matter. But the cooking style matters even more. An Old World-oriented Syrah bears more resemblance to a Old World Pinot than a New World Shiraz

When the coronavirus crisis is over, what wine will you open to celebrate?

I don’t really know. But something expensive. At home, you first drain your stock of cheap wine. Which is why our cheapest wine is selling like crazy!

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