Over the past several weeks, I spent time in four different mainland Chinese cities which included Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. I didn’t’ stay long in each city but I did have the opportunity to enjoy some nice meals and chat with many food and wine lovers. One evening in Hangzhou, I was fortunate enough to sit next to a charming, very attractive woman in her 30s. It is rare that I am seated next to a woman over a long wine dinner so I was intrigued to find out more about her background. She explained that besides a passion for golf, she acquired wine as a hobby about five years ago. Since then, she has become so immersed in wine that she is now a consultant and advisor to many of her wealthy friends who have become clients. She sources fine wine from all over the world to build cellars and buy wines for her private clients. What impressed me were her questions about each wine that was presented and her enthusiasm for the beverage. She has always lived in Hangzhou but her English was nearly flawless and from our conversation, it was clear that she was well travelled. Forget the stereotype Chinese male wine drinker who is buying by label. The real growth lies in women (or men) like the one seated next to me in Hangzhou: savvy, connected, knowledgeable, price-conscious and passionate about wine. In Shanghai, I met a woman who is the buyer for the family, collecting wines as seriously as any Chinese man. Her husband looked on proudly as she described some of the wines she was recently buying to fill the gaps in their collection. She clearly does her homework and she has strong opinions about the styles and producers she prefers. These very opinionated women were also clear about criticisms from the outside. The Shanghainese woman said, “I know Hong Kong women think they are more sophisticated but this is not true. Being more western doesn’t make you more sophisticated.” The woman in Hangzhou was more direct, “I know what Hong Kong people think about mainland Chinese who are new to wine. They think we don’t know how to appreciate and we only drink by label. How can they criticize when we fund their economy? Do they create anything themselves? They ride on other people’s coat-tails.” I came across similar snipes, sometimes catching snatches of a conversation in Putonghua and others openly expressed in English. I hadn’t realised until this recent visit that there is a tension between the serious wine lovers in China who are quickly catching up with the sophisticated Hong Kong wine enthusiasts. Part of this defensiveness may be attributed to the fact that within the past ten years, China has come a long way. Compared with ten years ago, the mainland wine drinking community didn’t travel as much as they do now, they didn’t have access to the vast array of wines and their understanding of wines was modest compared with their Hong Kong counterparts. Much has changed and with it, the profile of the wine buyer. After many of the dinners I enjoyed in China, I was invited out to another venue. This is typical Asian style, two-tier drinking evenings. Start out with wine and dinner thaen progress to another venue to continue drinking. Though I could not partake each time, I did manage to visit a jazz bar and a popular bar after two of my dinners. At the jazz bar, we enjoyed a bottle of wine and my host explained that wine was now the most popular after dinner beverage option in sophisticated bars around town in Shanghai or in Beijing.
Wine may not grace the lists of the numerous local restaurants but in bars and other drinking venues, wine is over-taking popular cocktails and hard liquor, especially among women. After spending time with many, sophisticated mainland Chinese wine enthusiasts, I am convinced that wine growth in China will continue unabated even if the economy slows down. Those who are serious about wine have caught the bug and it isn’t just about collecting labels and showing off to friends and colleagues. It is clearly about unravelling the mysteries of a wonderful, enticing beverage and making wine a part of their lives.
Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post