Friday, 7 August 2015

Wine consumption in Hong Kong

At a recent lunch with Darren Rathbone, CEO and Group Winemaker of three Australian wineries: Yering Station, Mount Langi Ghiran and Xanadu from Australia, together with the Northeast team, and a few friends from the F&B and media side (Ali Nicol from Wine Times HK was one of them), the discussion turned from the general wine and food matching to the more thought-provoking of how to crack the Chinese restaurant market, have them to sell more wine leading to more Chinese to consume wine.

This topic comes up regularly but nobody has an answer. Is it that Chinese are just not into drinking? Darren replied with a definitive no. He said Hong Kong Chinese brought up or born in Australia, as far as he is concerned, drink like and as much as average Australian do, and they drink with Chinese meals. It’s only visitors and new immigrants who don’t drink that much.

Shane Wilkins, F&B Director from The Langham where there is a two Michelin stars T’ang Court, and Dennis Cheung, sommelier of Celestial Court in the Sheraton where we were having lunch, also chipped in, saying that both their Chinese outlets serve a fair share of wine, but admitted that the majority are high-end and BYO (Celestial Court charges a whopping $500/bottle corkage fee!).

The retained imports in 2014 was 29.38
There are ever increasing wine events and dinners in Hong Kong but the latest figures showed that Hong Kong wine import in terms of volume in the last few years was pretty stagnant and in fact slightly decreasing at 4.1-4.2 litres/capita (note that this is official net import figure, not consumption), meaning that consumers are not drinking more and the market is not expanding. Threading together other observations and discussions, it is quite clearly that there is only a small core of wine consumers in Hong Kong (mostly comprised of trade) who drink more than their fair drink and nearly every day, and then there is a bigger group of occasional drinkers who may drink anywhere between 1-4 times/month. The majority of consumers is drinking even less or nothing at all. I had the same conclusion two years ago and it hasn’t changed.

Judging by the comments of Darren, Shane and Dennis, it is not that Chinese don’t drink or cannot tolerate alcohol. So why isn’t the wine market growing? I really think we only have ourselves to blame, that we fail to make wine more accessible by talking jargons rather than enjoyment, thereby scaring away average consumer who feel they do not have adequate knowledge to try it.

Sadly, this ‘I know it all’ attitude seems to be infectious. Wine consumers who think they like wine and all enthusiastic to enrol in one of the many wine courses often graduate to view wine as a challenge that they have to guess the grape varieties and name all the aromas. Once they guess the first wine (correctly or not), they then move on to the second one. Worse, they often show off their acquired knowledge by talking about (guess what?) jargons and labels in front of their ‘normal’ friends, thereby intimidating them rather than aspiring them to drink wine. They change from wine lovers to wine snobs and forget that wine is about enjoyment.

The other issue is the F&B industry. House wine or wine by the glass is likely to be the first glass of wine for average consumer. However, most house wine is way overpriced for the quality. These first timers may not understand wine but they can certainly tell that the wine doesn’t taste good. For $80 a glass of bad wine, they’ll probably go back to beer or cocktail. I was told that one bar owner refused to change the house wine because he bought it for $19/bottle and sold it at $60/glass.

Another hurdle is availability. We eat Chinese/Asian food most of the time but unless we dine at the likes of T’ang Court or Celestial Court, wine is not readily available at our local restaurants. This further reinforce the misperception that wine is a special occasion beverage. If we can persuade these restaurants to serve wine by the glass at a fair price, I think the wine scene will be different. In fact, I would love to see our leading fast food chains serving wine by the glass with their evening meal combos in not too distant future.

Only by taking away the prestige image of wine can we truly expand the market. Let’s work on this together.

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