On the verge of its tenth anniversary, Chilean wine specialist La Cava de Laoma has opened a second bar in Shanghai even as the general wine scene struggles.
I asked owner Mariano Larrain Hurtado, who also stocks wine from ten other countries, about the timing, about how he turned his flagship store into a space for art shows, conferences and more, about why he considers the COVID years as crucial for his business, and about lessons learned over the past decade and where he sees the China wine market going in the coming one.
1 Your new shop officially launched this summer. What can consumers expect and how does it differ from your other venue?
We had license problems with our previous location in the Jiaotong University area, so we had to close it just before lockdown last year.
I have always aimed to have two Shanghai shops: one where we can host events, especially wine tastings and parties, and one that works more like a bar and is connected to the surrounding community.
The new shop on Xinhua Road allowed me to go back to my original plan — and to my neighborhood.
2 But you opened that shop even as wine imports and sales have been falling in China year after year. What makes you confident?
Due to COVID, we had to close our original shop, the one that we used as a wine bar, so I was missing that part of the business.
Lao Liang, who has worked with us for ten years, is the perfect manager for the new location and will be fully in charge. So, opening this new shop takes advantage of our team’s talent, even though the general market is challenging and will remain so for a while. Hopefully, we can survive through these months.
3 Your older shop is a good example of combining wine and community, including by hosting art shows, poetry readings, book signings and more. What are your three favorite events over the years?
La Cava de Laoma is a wine place that allows the community to engage. Wine is the excuse to meet new friends, sometimes meet your neighbors, and create community bonds. And where everyone is welcome.
Looking at our events, I recall the Beijing days when we did annual tastings for BMW for Easter. It became a tradition and it was like a family gathering in the end.
Another event I hold in high regard is the first Pan-African Art Exhibition I curated and hosted in La Cava de Laoma in Shanghai.
The idea was to showcase the many talents of the African diaspora in China’s cultural landscape. Most of the time, it goes unnoticed, so it was meaningful to gather a group of incredible people. The best part is some participants kept working together and opened new spaces, such as the Black Voices in Literature group.
Finally, I once celebrated my birthday with an exhibition of paintings that I did. It was a unique chance to show a bit of my inner self to those friends who think I’m just always drinking wine.
4 The three-year COVID era was tough on the trade but you found yourself in a lucky situation during last year’s Shanghai lockdown. Could you talk a bit about that?
For us, the COVID years were good overall. Last year was extraordinary because, after two weeks of strict lockdown in Shanghai, I had the opportunity to leave my compound by signing a letter that forfeited my right to return home any time soon.
I took my pillow, blanket and air fryer, and moved to my shop, where I lived for almost two months. I also made a deal with three delivery guys who were living in the streets to stay with me there.
After one week of lockdown, we opened our mini app for delivery and the orders boomed. We were one of the few wine suppliers able to deliver in the Puxi area for some weeks.
We sold out fast but luckily a container of my wine reached Shanghai during the lockdown and I found an open warehouse to use.
We faced many challenges, especially to find food to feed four hungry men, but I couldn’t be more grateful for my decision. We took care of each other like a family under very special circumstances.
Maybe I became a bit crazy due to the lockdown, but some months after it ended, I felt that I healed. And this year, people voted us as the city’s “Best Wine Bar” in the That’s Shanghai awards for 2022. I couldn’t be more grateful.
[After I finished editing this Q&8, I talked to Hurtado at length about his experiences during COVID, and about living in his shop, and will write a separate post about this intriguing time.]
5 Your first shop in Beijing in 2013 opened with an entirely Chilean portfolio but you quickly diversified it. How many countries’ wines do you now carry? And how do you pick them?
We have a selection of wines from 11 countries. It’s a big shift from the original plan but we needed to provide options to customers.
Our selection is based on quality wine mostly from family-owned boutique estates. Since our main sales come from both of my family’s estates, I think that focus makes a difference.
Besides, I’m not a fan of big industrialized vineyards or wine brands. Sometimes they don’t have their own vineyards!
6 What is your biggest regret after a decade working in the wine business? And your biggest victory?
So far, no big regrets, though maybe my liver would answer otherwise.
I see my “wine adventure” as an experience and a process. I used to say that it will become my real-life PhD.
China is a very challenging market, where we have faced extreme market fluctuations, and consumer tastes and consumer channels are always changing.
Especially ten years ago, it seemed we were a bit early to promote the level of wine we do in China. The main challenge was people didn’t really consume wine, let alone Chilean wines.
Today, consumption per capita isn’t much higher but at least there is a better understanding of wine and we are happy to be part of that process, to have contributed in our own small way, especially for Chilean wine.
7 If customers ask you about pairing Chilean wine with Chinese food, what are your top suggestions?
My top recommendation is mutton kebabs with a good Maquis Carmenere. Chuar is ubiquitous so this pairing works very well all over China.
I also like a nice mutton barbecue, in the style people from Xinjiang prepare the food, which is a bit spicy but also a perfect match with Chilean Carmenere or our Los Presidentes Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon. The smooth tannins work well with the fat.
Finally, a nice wine pairing is lacquered duck or pigeon with Villard ‘Expression’ Pinot Noir. Chilean Pinots are slightly fruitier than other international styles, so the duck won’t overwhelm the wine. These matches can provide a great food and wine experience.
8 You now have ten years of China wine trade experience. What do you expect the scene to look like here in China ten years, especially for Chilean wine?
Looking back, we all believed wine consumption in China was going to rapidly increase and become the main driver of wine sales in Asia. That didn’t become reality and today wine is less trendy than a decade ago, although it should be noted wine consumption worldwide has declined.
In the case of China, I believe there is a strong and growing circle of people that enjoys a bottle of wine from time to time. And I see Japan’s wine consumption as a reference to how China can grow.
Consumption there is roughly 3 liters per capita, which is three times more than China.
At the same time, I believe that the emergence of Chinese wines will enhance that trend. Ten years from now, I see myself getting a piece of the market share for Chilean fine wines in China, and for it be an important part of the total production of the family vineyards we represent.
(Also check out my Q&8 last year with Hurtado.)
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