On many an occasion I’ve been reading online contents that address the subject of wine in China, Italian and not only, in a redundant and unexplored way. Therefore, I asked some questions to Giovanni Angoscini who has brought Italian wine to China since 2011.
[Questa è la traduzione in inglese di una lunga, articolata e bella intervista che Giovanni mi ha gentilmente regalato nell’agosto dello scorso anno. Si tratta anche della prima intervista ospitata su questo blog e del post al momento più condiviso, segno inequivocabile dell’interesse intorno all’argomento. Per tutti questi motivi, e per dar modo anche ad altri oltre confine di poterne apprezzare i contenuti, io e Giovanni abbiamo deciso di tradurla in lingua inglese. Enjoy the reading!]
Giovanni is a serious and well-prepared professional who is able to invoke a concrete and deep vision of this curious, iridescent market that is often frantic and seemingly so distant from our culture.
I am very satisfied about this interview, and I hope it becomes a source of analysis and knowledge to you as well as inspiration on your potential strategies to approach the Chinese market. I give the floor to Giovanni, who I of course thank for the time he has given to me.
How long have you been importing wine in China and how many trips a year do you take in this country?
I’ve been on business trips to China since 2011, since April 2011 to be precise, on a quite regular base.
A few days ago I counted the entry stamps to China on my passport and I’ve been there on average 5 times a year in the last six years. Each trip lasts at least two weeks, but I happened to stay in Asia for work for two consecutive months, without coming back to Italy.
First of all, this kind of market should be closely watched over; after trying to manage ‘long distance’ business activity in China, I have to admit that it is impossible.
However, our team is well-organized. Both Fabio Ferrari and I cover the Italian side in partnership with a Chinese member Mr. Water Chen, and so, we are able to cover the majority of the whole year. The ‘hot’ times are right before the most important Chinese holidays.
How did you start carrying out this business activity?
A friend and study partner of mine got in touch with me from Beijing; he was doing a post-master’s program there and suggested an idea to me. His well-off classmate’s parents used to drink exclusively French wine from the finest chateaux – in those times, whoever could afford it drank exclusively Bordeaux – and so we started wondering if there was a chance they could be open to the idea of drinking the finest Italian wines too.
The first step was identifying the most exclusive and expensive Italian wines. We started contacting some of the most important Italian wine cellars straight away and, surprisingly, they opened their doors to us. Of course not all of them did, but many proved to be quite available so we started collaborating with them first.
Wine importation from Italy to China was pretty problematic in those times, considering it was a society of importers which had a license issued by the central government and with a high amount of deposited social capital, so we started as we could. We filled our suitcases with very expensive bottles of wine and we started to shuffle back and forth between Beijing, Shanghai and Italy. I remember very much one of our first trips at that time. It was the four of us and we had two hold suitcases each with ten bottles per suitcase. It was all on the fringe of legality, but the customs agents’ faces at the airport were more surprised than annoyed. In this way, we started expanding to our private customers, who today still represent an important part of our sales volume.
Who are your customers?
Considering the lack of resources and the need to keep a lean organizational structure, we immediately decided to aim towards private customers, which foresees a more targeted effort but a higher amount patience and dedication. Rather than launching into the traditional market, which is characterized by a fierce competition and a price war we couldn’t even imagine competing against, we decided to totally focus on a few potentially extraordinary customers.
They are great collectors and wine lovers who, for work purposes or even just pure passion, ‘open’ an extraordinary number of bottles.
I emphasize ‘open’ because our target customer is not a ‘conservative’ collector like many Europeans, but he is an “hedonistic-drinker”. He is someone who buys a wine case from a good year and opens a couple of bottles right away, tastes them, and then decides what to do: if he likes them, he buys more. Otherwise, he waits to try them again at a later time, always with the possibility to buy them again.
Being honest, with this kind of customer there is only a particular approach to have; being honest, competent and professional as well as ‘always being there’ for them (either personally, with a collaborator, on the phone, by mail, or even better, on WeChat..).
From this year and on, we decided to have wider sales on the traditional retail channel, such as restaurants and hotels. We are getting organized with a well-trained local team who, with passion and commitment, are helping us to make a name even in the top quality local cuisine. It is fundamental to have a reliable and honest local partner during this process, who is also properly placed in the right retail channels.
Our most important customers in Shanghai are great names of international cuisine and fortunately they are increasing more and more to local restaurants of a medium to high range.
By working with very important and well-known producers, we are managing to add several references, even by the glass, in the main sales points of wine culture in Shanghai. This is where the future wine consumers are being trained and where the opinion leaders of the ‘small’ community of wine lovers in Shanghai meet each other.
How did the wine market change in China in the last few years?
The wine market in China is very difficult to interpret. It changes continually and any change can happen in a short time and not always in an ‘orderly’ or rational way.
As I said, originally the Chinese market was exclusively for French people who, with talent, intuition, and infinite resources, decided to invest heavily in a country which didn’t give immediate results to them either.
The beginning was all about red wine (I recommend the documentary of 2013 Red Obsession, which offers a simplified and maybe superficial but quite interesting image of the Chinese wine market…), with high alcohol content and dark-red in colour; today everyone look for finesse and elegance and all that is ‘unusual’, with an eye towards their neighbors (with no deep sympathy) Japan and the beloved Europe.
I always talk about the market I know, which I don’t think can be considered representative for the whole of China, but it can probably help figuring out what is happening in first tier cities and mostly in Shanghai.
The Chinese drinker is definitively curious; I’d say bulimic towards information and news, always busy shortening the cultural distance that separates a country which a huge and deep culture but withdrew into itself for a long time.
There are a couple of practical examples I often use with the producers in order to read this market between the lines: moving around the greatest part of high level restaurants of Shanghai we found out that at least 90% of the sommeliers, waiters, Head waiters, restaurant managers and the sector operators in general, are less than 40 years old. The two Head sommeliers of Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Shanghai are less than 35 years old, the Chef-sommelier of the Jean Jorge group is not more than thirty five, and all the sommeliers we dealt with, who were responsible of the wine lists in the restaurants of the leading hotel chains in Shanghai (Ritz-Carlton, Park Hyatt, Bellagio, Bulgari, Four Seasons..), confirm this.
The future customers, and those who will help us training them, are in China. They have means, curiosity and enthusiasm. One of the best wine lists that I have ever got my hands on, obviously in Asia, was one at the Asian-fusion restaurant, Hakkasan. It totally reflects this ‘young’ and dynamic approach to the wine world. The almost ten professional sommeliers who work at the restaurant meet each other one day a week for a wine tasting, where they blindly combine wines to the dishes listed on the menu, and with not much influence or pressure, they decide to include the wines that are well matched with dishes from the majority of the participating wines. What comes out is a great list of surprises and well worth a try, with an impressive choice of wines by the glass, and a wider proposal from all around the world.
Another interesting fact in order to understand this moving market is the incredible number of young Chinese people who are travelling the world in order to learn with the resulting success of oeno-gastronomic tourism, first in France and now in Italy.
These people travel, study, learn, consume and then go back to their country with the desire to tell everybody what they saw, did, tried. That’s how the future market is made, at a crazy speed. It certainly means that maybe we will also deal with the issue of ‘superficiality’ and a not very attentive consumption, but with all the operators behaving in a professional way alone, it would give the right impression of the Italian wine world from the very first approach.
Do you notice a taste evolution in the Chinese consumer or is there more of a tendency to follow the trends of other countries?
Chinese people are great tea consumers and connoisseur and they know how to taste. Despite what most of the producers might think they do not only like sweet and medium sweet, but they equally used to sour and tannic too.
Tea is a very tannic beverage which is marked by a good acidity. During the wine tasting sessions, while explaining new wines, the analogy of the traditional local beverage is not only useful but it also allows to demonstrate our interest in the Chinese culture, a kind of reciprocity which is not taken for granted but is very much appreciated. As I said, the Chinese consumer drinks a lot and this tendency indulged by a variety of proposals and an increasingly open market with accessible products is making a significant contribution to creating a personal taste. It is obviously going to be a very long process, but I count on an incredible market opening at least and on a great interest.
The major trends come from Japan-Taiwan and Korea, but they all start in Europe. The autochthonous vine varieties and the Italian uniqueness are starting to become more popular. This is because inside a limitless offer, we were able to communicate the typical feature of our product and the consumer is always looking for something unique and unrepeatable.
The popular environmental topic is bringing more and more consumers, especially those who can effort it and develop the awareness of a mature consumer, hence there is attention paid to BIO productions or in any case ‘natural’ and I would say ‘ethical’.
It is obvious that for the less experienced trends represent a faster approach to the wine world but also Chinese people, after the more mature wine consumers, are realizing that if there is no essence and content, once the trend passes by there is not much left. What I can say for sure is that the Chinese wine drinker does not preclude himself anything and he is extremely open-minded.
Which are the most successful wines at the moment?
Since Italian and Spanish wines are gaining a much greater interest, I have to admit that Champagne, Burgundy and Côtes du Rhône have always taken the upper hand. Accepting this fact, and according to our business activity, Piemonte is at a really amazing place, and Friuli and Sicily (especially the Etna area) follow closely behind.
The interest towards the orange wines (sorry for the simplification) is impressive, and I have to say that in our brief but intense experience of Italian wine importers we have never had such a commercial success. Having started to import wines from some of the ‘gurus’ of the Italian macerated wine production we didn’t even need to search for customers since they were already contacting us. Clearly it is a new trend, and I have to admit that we were lucky to get there in time but it’s also a trend that makes sense.
Some of the macerated wines are almost considered as beverages, constantly reminding us of tea for its complexity and ‘robustness’. They are even consumed between meals or at the end.
This consumption pattern suits the local customs perfectly. Furthermore, since they are white wines which are somewhat made and drunk like red wines, they represent a good ‘switch’ towards the white world for the red wine consumer.
How is the Italian wine seen at a qualitative level on the one hand and commercial on the other?
Italian wine is finally on the right way after a slow start and with the drawback of arriving after French wine-producers on one side and after having had a bad market approach on the other.
With some of the main operators out of the way, whose wine importation and distribution represented a parallel business, small operators keep placing true quality at the center of everything, or at least the price-quality ratio. As we all know, wine should be communicated with passion and professionalism, and after a time and effort, you can make it.
Italian wine keeps representing a minimum part of the wine importation in China, contending with Spain for a place on the podium. Yet, it is enormously distant from the highest step.
The Italian leadership as wine producers is emerging even more with an amazing price-quality ratio and considering that besides wealthy people, middle class have started drinking it too, this is a fundamental selling point.
Wine, as an exclusive and show-off beverage is becoming more and more customary and also ‘normal’, a real commodity.
Looking back to only five years ago, I must say that the communication effort of (many) brave and tireless operators who, facing the initial perplexity of the Chinese customer, did not destroy the value of some brands by ‘selling them off; Instead, they defended their dignity by giving away the spot market that could have emptied their storage while taking responsibility for the expenses.
I remember very well the complications of the great collectors towards the bottles of Barolo even though they cost only 100 euros (I mean in comparison to the prestigious French bottles). They used to say that the wine was unknown, and nobody had ever explained the value to them, and nobody would have noticed it on the table since they did not know it etc…Ok, five years later, the same consumers not only recognize the wine, but they even know the different producers, styles, and also the ‘crus’. Over the years, the Italian wine became the wine of someone who loves to drink well, and in large quantities, with no remorse (reasonable price – high quality).
What is the determining factor for a successful commercial deal?
Each relationship in China is based on respect, mutual trust and consistency.
We have done some business that somehow had nothing to do with the sold product, but it was strongly related to the people who were driving the
negotiation. The Chinese market should be first and foremost supervised; it could be very difficult to close a deal on the first try (at least it won’t be long-lasting) and not even on the second chance. When we arrived in Shanghai in 2011-2012, everyone was telling us that we would not sell anything for the first two-three years. That was almost true, and we realized it right after many relationships blossomed when we had considered them already dead, also having worked a couple of years before it.
That is why the human relationship is crucial: in looking for a reliable and serious partner on site again, absolutely crucial), in looking for collaborators, and finally in identifying, seeking out and in keeping the customers. In this aspect, I have to say that the Chinese customer is very ‘loyal’ and hardly changes its supplier, especially in a sector where the price may be decisive but it is certainly not the only element. So, answering to your question in a word, I would say that perseverance is the key element.
How important is the human factor in your job?
I already replied partially but I’ll continue with one of your favourite subjects too. It is obvious to anyone that e-commerce and digital communication are really changing this profession and at some level ‘depersonalizing’ it.
As far as I’m concerned, I still consider the human factor decisive to conquer a greedy market towards information, however, we must learn to select it and evaluate the quality of the information.
We talk about digital here so I am curious to know if you were able to verify the digital aptitude of your Chinese customers. How do they relate to the digitally towards wine? Do you know if they share the wines they taste on their social channels? Do they appear more or less digitalized than us?
Chinese people are always connected, and it also applies to our business too. All of our customers, no matter their age or status, are regularly buying online.
I happened to view the private account of one of our most important customers at a wine selling online platform and I found out that, besides being a real influencer who has thousands of followers, over the last year he bought almost a hundred thousand dollars of wine online using a single platform.
Trust me, this is not a rare case. In this way, from the customer’s point of view, the quality and the origin of wine is certified, hence there is no risk of buying fraud but there is the possibility to compare prices with a discreet transparency, and mostly you can build up a reputation.
A customer once happened to jokingly tell me off, not too harsh though, because the picture quality of the bottles I shared in my WeChat was not sufficient, therefore I did not appear serious and professional in my user’s eyes. So I started realising the way these people live and interpret the world of digital sharing as one of their passions.
Not only do the Chinese seem to be on average more digitalized than we are, they seem to take it more seriously too.
I must say that at the beginning, this extreme sharing was a bit fruitless, a digital version of the show off that often went consuming at the tables of the best restaurants in Shanghai with opened expensive bottles while drinking them without any restraint. Now the approach is more motivated by a real interest and a more ‘didactic’ purpose.
In June, I was invited to a Barbera base wine tasting of different vintages and origins: well, apart from the impressive number of questions and many discussions, they immediately added me to the WeChat group of members who after the wine tasting, for two more hours, went on sharing opinions, pictures and videos about what they drank and would drink in short. A very instructive and non-stop type of sharing.
Has the e-commerce topic ever emerged in relation to wine purchasing? Do you know if they rely on this channel for their internal consumption too? And if they do, how do they perceive it?
I already replied partially but I would like to mention a personal experience: just last week I was contacted with some urgency by the purchasing manager of a very well-experienced importer of Shanghai, to whom we introduced a producer they later started a commercial collaboration with. Even though he never signed any exclusive contracts, nobody asks for or gives them away nowadays, he kept complaining that one of his references appeared on one of the main platform of the Chinese e-commerce. The issue was not so much related to its appearance but, as you can imagine, it was related to the public selling price. I talked to the producer who, despite being on vacation, was very helpful and called the platform until they aligned the selling price to the real commercial value of the bottle. The e-commerce platform, on its behalf, replied saying that ‘whoever buys the wine, owns the wine’ and once they owned it, they felt absolutely free to decide their commercial policy. The matter will be settled with a spot sale of a few bottles which won’t crumble the market but will help the final user to purchase wine in very advantageous conditions since the e-commerce platform has very low costs and it efforts lower charges.
I personally realised everything was done in good faith in this case, so much so that the producer sold at the same price to all (which is the crucial part). The online platform did something absolutely licit. The importer simply told me that they won’t lower the price even a cent since they work in a different niche of the market which does not even consider the online prices but at the same time he appreciates the special service and other types of attention given. In short, as an off-line operator, I have to admit that there is room for everyone.
Is there a future in China for Italian wine from small winemakers, too? If so, what kind of features should the products have in order to grab the attention of the Chinese consumer?
It is the theme that we briefly discussed about at the penultimate Vinitaly with an important producer by the founders of an association that includes all the independent winegrowers. A few years ago “good meant great” to the Chinese customer or it was necessary to show where the wine came and the bigger and well-equipped the cellar was, the more the product was estimated; in the last few years the trend is fading away.
Just like the autochthon qualities and indigenous wine varieties started to find room in the market, the under-equipped producers also emerged. They generally speaking pay more attention to the quality and the production process, and make wine only out of vineyard grapes while they personally follow the work in the vineyard and cellar, which gains deserved recognition.
The idea of the number of bottles produced as an absolute value is changing and the idea (not always true) that small is beautiful slipped through. The less I produce the better. We are not extremists, we fight the “a-priori positions”, but we believe to have personally contributed in the emergence of the winemaker figure (the French vigneron) in the Shanghai market. We also organize many tasting events where the producers participate.
This exchange between the producer (we are talking about the latest example of a producer with 50/60.000 bottles a year) and his final customer was really exciting and instructive. Even in this case the topic is communication and transparency: this producer simply told his story, without leaving anything out, and the participants recognized his value appreciating his wines even more, the real value of his production.
So, in order to reply to your question, I believe that people are looking for honest and authentic products whose quality has an exact and explicable origin and which can be found in the value of a specific piece of land, in the ability of those who work, in the technique used inside the cellar or the authenticity of those who had the idea first to do something that no one ever did before or even by bringing back something from the past and tradition. Wines should have personality and a certain uniqueness because at the end of the day they should live up to those who started it first and keep doing a great job (French people), those who started later but are cheaper (the Americas) and those that come from countries with or without import duties and invest in marketing and promotion (Australia).
Where to find Giovanni today
Regarding the Chinese market, Giovanni is in partnership with Fabio Ferrari for Zefiro-Group Srl. You can find a short description about the company at the end of the post. You can find the official website here: www.zefiro-group.com.
Giovanni is also in partnership with Luigi Bagassi for the wine shop A La Cave at the historical center of Brescia (they also have a wine import and distribution company, where the main goal is to discover new talents from the wine world production as well as promoting small and less popular producing areas…).
And if you are into digitalization, consider yourself lucky as Giovanni has now become social; try not to envy the bottles he shares, you can also follow him on Instagram as @gioango.
I think that is all. Remember to share the post if you enjoyed it. And thank you again Gio.
Zefiro-Group Srl is a company that selects, imports and distributes Italian quality wines which operates in China since the 2011. It is focused on Shanghai. Since 2014 it started a partnership with the Chinese group GSL Global Skyway International Logistics Co., Ltd and Global Skuway Supply Chain Management Co., Ltd.
The catalogue of GSL-Zefiro now counts about twenty Italian producers who represent the most important wine-growing regions of Italy. The big names are followed by small quality producers and independent winegrowers. The catalogue is continuously expanding with a constant request.