Brian Yao is founder of SOWINE (sowine.com.cn) a wine club for wine education and wine culture promotion founded in 2008, connecting more than 2.800 professionals every month.
Before he was chief journalist at Wines-info.com, one of the biggest and most popular wine website in China. He is currently working as wine editor of the Chinese lifestyle magazine “Choices”, with circulation of 45,000 copies monthly. He is also working for the CCB Fortune magazine as a lifestyle writer for wine and food column. Moreover he works as independent writer for other magazines and newspapers.
Brian is certified WSET Diploma, and a authorized wine educator of WSET courses.
He is also the official ambassador of Loire Wine in China, and authorized wine educator of New Zealand Winegrowers.
Ciao Brian, first of all, please tell us how you became passionate, about wine in general, and then about Italian wines.
The first time I tasted an imported wine, it was a Chilean wine, which was fruity and quite different from the Chinese wines available in the market at that time. It opened my eyes, and I kept trying wines from different regions, especially from France.
Then I tried some Italian wines in an Italian restaurant owned by a friend in Beijing. I still remember an old vintage of Barolo I tasted with a small group of people. The Barolo was quite close at the beginning, and after about 15 minutes, there it came the lovely fruits and spices, together with roasted nuts and mushroom etc.
I got curious and I visited different regions in Italy as a journalist. The Italian lifestyle and its wines are so amazing. Nobody can resist the temptation of enjoy a glass of wine by the river of Adige, or chilling at the swimming pool of a beautiful Tuscany hotel.
Italian wines performance are quite bad in Chinese market, what do you think is the reason for that?
Italian wines are quite difficult for Chinese customers to understand. The huge numbers of grape varieties make things worse.
But things are changing rapidly. The so called “ABC” of Italian wines – which are Amarone, Barolo and Chianti Classico – got more and more attention. This system show us that if we make things easier to understand and remember, Italian wines can be accepted by Chinese customers in an easier way.
You have been a wine journalist and are now a wine trainer and influencer, what spot does Italian wine occupy in the consumers mind? What is the general idea about it?
This is not an easy question. China is a big country with people with different palates.
Some people in China think Italian wines are stylish, with their unique characteristics, sometimes with good structure. Some consumers, the senior one, think that Italian wines sometimes are a good pair for food, sometimes are good for sipping.
How covid19 has changed the rules of the game for wine promotion and selling? What are the new trends?
The covid19 has changed the scenario of wine drinking dramatically. People have less gathering and drink less than usual. But also, people trend to drink better. There will be opportunities for fine wine.
There are more and more online master classes, tastings, which influenced customers during the lockdown and will be a new part of normal life. But the online events can never completely replace the face to face communication.
Do you think digitalization is a fundamental part for wine promotion in China? Is it going to substitute completely the wine fairs and wine events?
Yes. Digitalization will be fundamental in China. It is easier to broadcast to such large territory, and it is quite popular in young generation. On the other hand, digital promotion event can be quite expensive to plan, execute and broadcast, especially is a large audience is involved.
Can you point out some digital platform where wine is performing particularly well and explain us why? (except for Sowine activities obviously :D)
I think we can have two examples. One is focused on consumers and one is focused on small distributors (or wine shops etc.)
JD.com is a giant online shopping platform, and there are many wine brands that built their online shop in JD.com. The wine shops are a good place to show the wines to customers. Lafite Rothschild built their wine shop in JD.com since 2017, you can easily click on an hyperlink to visit their shop.
Wajiu.com is the good example of selling wines to trade. The customers include small distributors in 1st and 2nd tier cities, including wine shops, restaurants and wine studios etc. Wajiu.com has resources of purchase wines in large volume, and they’re very effective on logistic. Sartori from Veneto is working with Wajiu.com at the moment.
There is a lot of curiosity from Italy toward Chinese wines, what do you think about it? Are there some wineries good enough to compete in the international market?
The quality of Chinese wines are improving these years. After years of focus on red grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, some wine producers realize that they should find right grape varieties for their vineyards. We now find that Marselan is popular in a lot of Chinese wine growing regions such as Ningxia, Huailai, Penglai and some other regions. We can also find a little more white grapes planted, including Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.
Xige Estate from Ningxia, and Canaan Winery from Huailai which is quite near Beijing are two of the big commercial wine producers. They produce wine with high quality and fetch reasonable prices.
How important is the brand and brand awareness in Chinese market?
Brand is very important in Chinese market. Given that lots of Chinese consumers do not understand wine well, brand is a very important clue for them to choose wines.
Penfolds is a good example. It is very popular in Chinese market, even if their prices are higher than the average market.
Influencer marketing in China is quite expensive, especially on WeChat, in your experience, is the return of investment worth it? Why is Influencer marketing so important in China?
I think that a return of investment for wine it’s really hard if you use big influencers. In fact it’s quite difficult to sell large quantity of wines to balance their costs.
Influencer marketing is important in China because young generations tend to get information from internet and shopping online to make a purchase. Only if an influencer cover a large audience influencer marketing can be cost effective. But talking about wine marketing, you need to be very careful.
If you could speak with an Italian wine producer, what would be 3 suggestions you’d give him to improve his performance on the Chinese Market?
1. Please visit China regularly and have face-to-face communication with your Chinese consumers during wine tastings, wine dinners or other events.
2. Stick with your importer in China, if you think they’re capable and reliable.
3. If possible, sell your wines with name easy to pronounce. If you can have a good Chinese name for your wine, use it and protect it legally. A good Chinese name can be very powerful when promoting your wine in the Chinese market.