Leon Liang is Chief Operating Officer and Tutor of the Grapea Institute and Founder, Shanghai Sannianjian Wine Club. Leon is also a wine importer and WSET teacher.
He is an expert on Hawke’s Bay Wine in China; an official teacher from New Zealand, Argentina, Chile; Official tutor of ONAV CHINA; Chef Ambassador of Piccole Cantine Italiane; Judge for Decanter Asia / IWC, Judge of the Wine 100 / China blind competition, Translator of the book “The concise guide to wine and blind tasting”.
Leon won several awards including:
- Blind tasting sample of the blind tasting contest of Aussino 2014
- Blind tasting sample of the blind tasting competition of China 2015
- Blind tasting sample of the blind tasting contest BTTC 2015
- Blind tasting sample of China blind tasting contest 2017
- Vinitaly International Award 2019
Leon, first of all, thank you for this interview. You are a famous sommelier and wine educator in China, how did you get interested in wine in the beginning?
By drinking the first glass of wine, I realized that it was not just a drink but something more. Wine is able to communicate information on the region of origin, the vintage, and it also has an aesthetic function.
Grapea is a large and ambitious project that you developed with LuYang, Corporate Wine Director for Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts. The educational wine community immediately responded and joined you, why did you decide to do it?
China is a peculiar market that originally has no wine critics or teachers. We need a group of local talents to offer a wide range of quality education and services for the wine market, that’s why we founded the Grapea project.
Italian wine is not very popular in China, what do you think are the main reasons?
When people order a bottle of wine, they should be capable to read the name of the wine and remember it. Most Italian wines have an unpronounceable name and this makes it difficult for people to choose it. In addition, Italian wines are often characterized by high acidity and tannins, and this discourages young wine lovers in choosing Italian wine.
The COVID19 pandemic is changing the rules of the market and many changes are here to stay. How do you think it will affect the wine industry?
The world will be increasingly digital, people are already using digital platforms such as live streaming or apps to search for information on wines. In the end, the purchase choice will take place online and users will certainly rely more on the information available in social media or digital platforms.
Live streaming is booming in China and we know that sometimes you also organize Live Stream sessions on Taobao. Do you think it could be a good way to increase the popularity of Italian wine?
Absolutely. In recent months, we have seen an exponential increase in the number of visits in live stream sessions, and the volume of sales has also been increasing. At the moment not all wine is suitable for online sales, very famous wines, with a well established brand, or wines with very competitive prices perform better than wines from the “boutique wineries”, at least this is the current trend.
We hear a lot about KOL and KOC, how important is their role in promoting wine? How should a producer choose a KOL rather than a KOC?
KOCs and KOLs play a very different role in Chinese market. KOC can help the brand to sell more, to convince users to buy a certain product. On the other hand, beside pushing sales, KOLs are able to generate brand awareness and authority. In short, KOLs can help you promote the brand while KOCs are primarily for selling.
Education is a popular way to promote wine, but how long does it take to increase brand awareness through education?
There is not a single rule for all the wines, a lot depends on the type of training that you decide to carry out and also on the reputation of the brand. Surely a single tasting leads to no results. Long-term promotions should be considered, at least 6 months or even a year of lessons. In this way, you can create connections and a community and this has an effect on the brand.
Italy has many denominations, regions, micro-regions, DOC, DOCG…. sometimes it is really difficult to remember it (even for Italians) in your educator experience, is the approach according to which you focus a lot on names and production techniques correct? And when it comes to wine, what are your students’ main interests?
Of course not, very often I replace the technical terms used to describe DOC and DOCG with other terms that I try to associate with the style of wine, so my students spontaneously remember the name after understanding and tasting the wine.
For what concerns my students interests, they are quite related to their taste: they easily forget the wines they don’t like and remember the ones they like very much.
You also have a wine shop in Shanghai and you are an importer of some wines, in your opinion what is the biggest challenge to face to sell Italian wine in China?
Honestly, is not so difficult. We saw a great business growth in recent years, we do the right thing in the right market. The secret is to choose the right product for the right distribution channel: we sell “mass” products online while we sell “boutique wineries” wine locally through tastings, or in the fine dining distribution channel.
If you could talk to an Italian wine producer, what would be your 3 suggestions to promote Italian wines in China?
1. Clearly establish which is the right market for your wine and follow a sales plan according to the characteristics of the product (quality level, price, taste, age group of potential customers, distribution channel, etc.)
2. Collaborate with importers with whom you can build long-term relationships
3. Choose an easy-to-pronounce Chinese name for your wine