Sam Chen is Level 4 and certified WSET teacher. He is also certified teacher for Rioja, Australia, Barossa, Argentina, New Zeland, Napa e Spain. He won the prize as best Rioja teacher and Best Wine Australia A+ teacher. He also is the 2017 China Blind Tasting Competition winner and translator of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting”.
Ciao Sam, thank you so much for this interview. First of all, please tell us how you became passionate, about the wine first, and then about Italian wines.
I joined this business because of my father, he decided to start wine trading in 2007, and I helped him with some paperwork and documents. At first, I studied everything by myself, later after 2 years, I met my good friend Simon and my tutor Yang Lv MS. They have led me in the right direction and started my journey as a wine professional. I fell in love with Italian wine because of a bottle of Gaja Barbaresco 1974, enjoyed together with Simon. I had never tasted a wine with such freshness and solid structure after 40 years of aging.
You are a wine educator do you think education is the key to promote Italian wines?
Of course, it is. To appreciate Italian wine is different from any other wine in the world, the most famous varieties are almost exclusively expressed in this country, the balance of wine could not be simply valued according to the standards of France or the USA. People need to be educated or at least introduced to the Italian wine culture.
As a wine educator, do you think the Italian wine names and generally speaking the denomination system makes it harder for Chinese consumers to remember (and chose) Italian wines? Is the Chinese translation of names useful in this sense?
Over 400 PDO regions are difficult to remember not only to Chinese customers but also to the rest of the world out of Italy, not to mention MGAs/ Crus. Precise Translation could help some part of memorization, but the more important thing is to make them easier to remember.
Sticking to education, can you tell us 3 things that your students love about Italian wines and 3 things that they don’t like?
Long living, complexity, and subtlety are 3 things they like. Hard to pronounce, slim acidity, and too much information on the label are 3 things they do not like
You know a lot about Italian wines and you have been also to Italy many times visiting the wineries, but in fact, you are very popular with Rioja Wine and New Zeland wine as well. Given the chance to work with different countries, what do you think Italian wineries could do to improve their performances? Is there any competitive advantage that the Italian wine system is not using yet?
Actually, Italian wines are improving in the Chinese market. What I think is that all those big brands should do more promotion in China, they could deliver the information of certain region/ variety or style much easier than boutique wineries, and they could cooperate more with smaller wine bars instead of hotels.
You are also a blind tasting champion (congratulations for your achievements) and Chinese wine experts are doing quite well in terms of achieving titles and prizes (like Master of wines, Master of Sommelier, Blind Tasting competitions, and so on). I think it is interesting, considering that wine is not a native product in China. How do you explain this high specialization and interest in wine in China?
Blind tasting is a skill we need to appreciate wines, especially for fine wine and boutique wines. The competition gives us the opportunity to test our skills. And right because wines and wine knowledge are not in Chinese native culture, we require a more open mind and language skills in the learning process, which results in the fact that those who are involved in the wine industry usually have a solid educational background. Moreover, the possibility to find wines from different countries in the Chinese market is helping Chinese people to build an international palate instead of a local or cellar palate. Last but not least, the wine business is young, and wine people are young as well in China.
Talking about China and wine, we hear a lot about Chinese viticulture, are Chinese wines ready to compete in the international market? Do you think this will be a threat to the Italian wine performance in China?
Chinese wines are improving, but I do not think the whole business is ready yet to compete in the international market. Unless China could set an exclusive way of appreciating Chinese wine ( like what rice wine and Baijiu are doing ), Chinese wines are still following the standard of the foreign country. According to these standards, Most Chinese wines still have a long way to go to match the real fine wine or great wine level. And those products are really newcomers into the old foreign markets, which means it might not be capable of occupying any of the major distribution channels. For the domestic market in China, Italy wines are not competing with Chinese wine in the same market position, the competitors are mostly coming from other wine making country.
A common idea is that Chinese consumers prefer sweet, low tannins, high alcohol, deep red wines. Is this still true? And is there no room for white wines in China?
It is not really true, dry wines are more and more popular in common customers, young drinkers are not showing interest in bold large heavy wines anymore. Bright, fruity, more straightforward wines now are getting popular in bars and restaurants. Actually importing of white wines are increasing, customers now are learning to appreciate white wines especially in certain season and certain areas of China.
We hear a lot about wine influencers (and you are actually one) and live stream events where is possible to sell a lot of wine. What is your position about it? Are Wine Influencers really helping wineries in promoting their product in China? Why consumers trust them?
I am not selling any wines in Livestream, I am just helping to spread brand influences or regional information. Some KOLs definitely help to sell especially in online distribution. They have already built their fame in a certain way, and consumers are willing to follow their choices
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. Do not talk too much about Italian terroir.
2. Explain more the history of the winery could help people remember you.
3. Find a short explanation of your wine.