Picture: Jeannie Cho Lee, MW
Will the American Parker Story Repeat itself in China?
Many people say, China’s wine industry is now there were America was 50 years ago. In the last 50 years, we have seen a wine revolution and boom in America and a lawyer from the Washington DC region emerging as the most influential wine critic in the world, guiding the American consumers with their enormous purchasing power in the choice for buying a wine and having an enormous impact on wine making around the globe.
While being very popular and highly appreciated in the US and elsewhere, Parker is very much disliked in Europe. Many Europeans feel that European winemakers have changed the style of their wine to please Parker and to get high scores from him. Parker, in their view, was also detrimental to a diversified range of wine styles. Everyone was moving towards Parker’s taste. Because, when he gave high scores to wine, 200 million American wine consumers would by the wine.
Will the same happen again with China? Will a Chinese wine expert emerge as leader of the large and growing purchasing power of the new generation of wine consumers in China? Who will be the Chinese Robert Parker? Will there be another Parker effect?
The Parker Effect
The Parker effect – European wine producers were changing the way they had been making their wine for ages with the view of pleasing Mr. Parker and achieving high points in his ratings – had two root causes.
First, the globalization of the wine market. Bordeaux wine were not only shipped to London any more but around the world, including to America and Japan, where affluent consumers started to drink wine.
Second, these affluent consumers were new in the wine business. Before World War II, there was no wine in America – the period of Prohibition. After World War II American military personnel observed diners in other countries enjoying daily wine with their meals, and they brought this concept back to their own homes. The sale of gourmet cookbooks rose, wine tastings became popular as a new kind of social event and wine became a symbol of culture and status.
The American Wine Boom and the Unsure American Wine Drinker
In 1968, consumption of table wine finally surpassed that of dessert wines in the US. And by 1972, wine consumption was 340 million gallons, or about 8 liters per person, which was three times the figure before prohibition. A wine revolution had begun in the US.
But American wine consumers were unsure. Wine was a new thing. They had not gone through the school I had gone through in Europe – daily wine on the table and wine consumption during the lunch and dinner with my family, but were not sure what to buy, and were looking for guidance. They had not started to drink wine at home for lunch or dinner early on in their lives. They had not had a father or mother who taught them what a good and what a bad wine was. This guidance gave them Robert Parker and thus became the most influential and powerful wine drinker in the world.
This guidance could have given them somebody like the Brit Hugh Johnson. But they did not trust him. They wanted an American.
The Chinese Wine Boom and the Unsure Chinese Wine Drinker
Aren’t we in China in a similar situation?
The wine industry in China is developing at a remarkable pace. China could become the world’s largest producer of wine in 50 years time, experts predict.
China has a long tradition of producing all kinds of wine, but produced practically no vinifera wine before the economic reforms of the early 1980s. It now ranks 6th in terms of production, ahead of Australia, Germany, South Africa and Chile, almost at par with Argentina, which is in 5th place. The top four producers are France, Italy, Spain and the US.
The renowned Pauillac estate Chateau Lafite Rothschild, partnering with CITIC, China's largest state-owned investment company, is in the process of setting up a winery in China to produce grand cru wines there.
In terms of consumption, China was the eighth largest wine consumer last year, behind leader Italy, France and the United States in the top three spots. One of the main features of the China wine market, as supposed to western markets, is the predominance of red over white wine. Around 85 per cent of the wine drank in China is estimated to be red. However, as more Chinese women develop a taste for wine, white wine drinking is expected to rise relative to red wine.
At 0.4 liters per person a year, wine consumption is still quite low by international comparison. In France, where wine is culturally embedded, people drink 50 liters a year with consumption in Australia, another major wine producing nation, 25 liters and in the United States 15 liters. If China's per capital wine consumption was to only increase slightly because of the scale of the population it could easily shift the center of gravity of the world's wine industry.
Imports are small but growing. Consumers in China have very limited knowledge about wine. It is very difficult for them to assess the quality of either branded or even non-branded wine. Consumers still find the process of buying imported wine difficult because even in international supermarkets like Carrefour or Tesco there is little information on the label to tell them what the wine is.
Jeannie Cho Lee
Most likely, Chinese consumers will increasingly look for guidance when to buy wine. That guidance may be provided by somebody like the the Korean-born, Hong Kong-based Jeannie Cho Lee . She is a Master of Wine and the first Asian, among 300 wine experts around the globe, to have been awarded this prestigious title by the Institute of Masters of Wine in London. The recognition has landed Lee, currently a wine consultant to Singapore Airlines, sixth place on CNN Hong Kong's "20 People to Watch" list. Now, she's come up with a book. "Asian Palate" is the first comprehensive work to match Asian cuisine with wine. See here.
Picture: Jeannie Cho Lee's New Book
Regardless of whether it will be Jeannie Cho Lee, who will become the new Robert Parker or not, it will be an Asian, or more likely a Chinese who will provide guidance to the Chinese consumer the way Parker did for the Americans. It will not be a European or American for the same reasons as it was not a European who would guide the American consumers.
The taste of this person will play a huge role in the shaping up of the global wine market. Just as Robert Parker with his enormous purchasing power of the Chinese consumers, looking for guidance, in the back.
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