A Brief Guide to the Most Influential People in the Chinese Wine Industry
Here are some influential people who have transformed the Chinese wine industry to top wine consuming country.
The Chinese wine industry has grown significantly in both size and sophistication over the past decade. Back in 2011, foreign wine importers primarily focused on prestigious Bordeaux producers; domestic Chinese wine producers were relegated to the low end of the market; retail stores were brick-and-mortar shops, and wine education for China’s booming middle class was just getting started. Fast forward to 2018, however, and foreign producers from both Australia and Chile are gaining traction in China; domestic producers are moving to the premium end of the market; e-commerce wine retail is king, and social media influencers are bringing new wine brands to the urban middle class across China.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand this transformative change that is taking place in China’s wine industry is by taking a closer look at the most influential people in the Chinese wine industry, then and now. Back in 2011, wine magazine Decanter listed the Top 50 most influential wine industry professionals in the world and surprised many people by listing five people with strong links to China. At the time, this was seen as a strong sign that the Chinese wine market (and, more generally, the Asian wine market) was going to play a very important role in the future direction of the global wine industry.
At the top of the list was Don St. Pierre Jr., the Canadian CEO of ASC Fine Wines. Decanter ranked him #7 in the world, thanks primarily to his influence in the Chinese wine market. The father-son team of Don St. Pierre Sr. and Don St. Pierre Jr. opened up ASC Fine Wines in China back in 1996, even before China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. The company became the country’s leading importer of premium wines and was generally credited with opening the door to big-name French producers, especially those from Bordeaux so that they could begin selling their wines to the Chinese market.
Wu Fei, Chairman of COFCO Wines & Spirits, also made the list of influential Chinese wine insiders. COFCO is the owner of Great Wall, which has become the leading domestic Chinese producer. In recent years, Great Wall has been a strong proponent of premium Chinese wines that can hold their own with any from France or Italy. Recently, Great Wall has been buying up vineyards in Chile and France in order to build a sophisticated wine operation spanning the globe. Back in 2011, Decanter applauded COFCO for heralding the transition away from cheap, bulk blends to higher-end wines in the mid- to the premium tier.
Another person who made the list in 2011 was Robert Shum, the founder of retail chain Aussino World Wines, which has become China’s largest operator of retail wine shops. Aussino was originally founded in 1997 as an importer and distributor and opened its first wine retail shop (Aussino Wine Cellar) in 2003. Shum has been instrumental in helping to build the notion of “wine brands” within China. In one interview, Shum explained why Bordeaux producer Lafite remains the No. 1 wine brand in China: ”A brand is very important. It is not just the quality but the face.” What he had in mind here is that wine is a way of “saving face” in social interactions and that the choice of the right wine can influence how people view you. Today, this still remains the primary way that people think about wine.
Also making the list was Ch’ng Poh Tiong, an influential wine columnist and the publisher of The Wine Review. In 2000, he published the world’s first “Chinese Bordeaux Guide.” He also launched the website 108ChinesePairings.com, to celebrate the perfect food-wine pairings for 108 great Chinese dishes. He has also been a judge for Decanter World Wine Awards, and he is the founder of VinoVideos.com, which features videos about wine.
And, finally, Decanter selected Eric de Rothschild, President of Domaines Barons de Rothschild. He is so influential in the Chinese wine industry because Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR) is the owner of Chateau Lafite, a top Bordeaux producer and still the No. 1 wine brand in China today. Even compared with other Bordeaux producers like Margaux and Latour, Lafite is easily the most popular in China, both in retail wine shops and on large e-commerce wine portals.
All in all, the list of top Chinese influencers prepared by Decanter offered a broad, macro look at the most important players in China. The list included the head of China’s top domestic wine producer, the head of China’s top foreign wine importer, the head of China’s top retail wine chain, the top Chinese wine columnist, and the head of China’s favourite foreign wine producer.
So it’s interesting to see how things changed in the period from 2011-2018. At the end of 2018, Meininger released its own list of the most influential Chinese wine insiders, and the list looked markedly different. For one, Meininger used the term “Key Opinion Leader,” or KOL, to recognize the role of social media. These KOLs have become the leading influencers in China due to the phenomenal growth of mobile and e-commerce.
At the top of Meininger’s list was Wang Shenghan, better known as “Drunk Mother Goose” on social media. She is most famous for her candid wine review videos on Weibo and has over 700,000 fans on social media. Moreover, she has launched Lady Penguin, which is really a hybrid of a social media platform, an online wine retailer, and a wine club. Lady Penguin has also branched out into wine tastings, events, wine guides and even a wine bar in Beijing’s very fashionable Sanlitun District.
And Wang Shenghan was not the only KOL on Meininger’s list. Also making the cut were Chufei and Churan, also known as “the Kardashians of China.” The two twins now have over 1 million followers on social media and have become top wine influencers, especially for upper-middle-class women in Mainland China. In 2018, Wine Australia invited Chufei and Churan for a two-day whirlwind tour of Australia, just so that they would help promote Australian wines to Chinese consumers.
And, recognizing how important e-commerce has become to the Chinese wine market, Meininger also included Oliver Zhou, Managing Director of Vinehoo.com, on its list of top wine influencers. In addition to impeccable wine credentials (he was named the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Competition 2016 Young Communicator of the Year), he has also been one of the key influencers in the B2C wine market. He has been creating online wine content since 2008, and his Vinehoo content for Weibo and WeChat now gets hundreds of thousands of views each month. While Alibaba’s Tmall.com remains the dominant e-commerce platform for wine, it is the smaller B2C platforms like Vinehoo that are attracting wine lovers and wine enthusiasts.
Finally, Meininger selected two top wine educators – Terry Xu and Fongyee Walker MW – for its list of top influencers. Xu is a Shanghai-based wine journalist, educator and presenter who trained in Bordeaux and has wine trainer certifications from six other wine regions and countries. Walker was China’s first-ever Master of Wine and is generally acknowledged to be the most skilled wine educator in Beijing.
Both Xu and Walker are great examples of how important wine education has become for the future development of China’s wine industry. With the emergence of social media, the growth of China’s middle class, and the expansion of wine culture beyond Shanghai and Beijing, it is becoming more important than ever before to nurture China’s growing population of wine enthusiasts and wine fans. Tastings, events, and competitions are all great ways to encourage more middle-class Chinese to drink wine from all over the world.
Going forward, it’s easy to see how China’s wine influencers will continue to reflect larger transformative changes happening within China. With the rise of Australia as the No. 2 wine exporter to China, for example, it ‘s easy to see how Australia will exert tremendous influence on the future direction of the market. Influencers with ties to Australia could start a transition away from expensive, prestigious Bordeaux wines to more affordable, everyday reds that can be paired with a wider range of Chinese dishes. And, of course, the KOLs on social media will become even more important, as Weibo and WeChat become the primary ways that people learn about new wines and interact with their favourite wine personalities. Several years from now, it will be interesting to again review the list of top influencers in the Chinese wine industry.
About 2019 China Wine Competition
2019 China Wine Competition is an annual wine competition in Shanghai that will rate wines by quality, value and package. It looks to recognise, reward and help promote wine brands that have successfully been created to identify with and target a specific wine drinker.