Wines & Vines

Korean import market is growing

Korean import market is growing

Bill Stephens

On a chilly fall evening in the lively nightclub area surrounding Seoul’s Hongik University, Margaux wine bar is a quiet island of cool. Overlooking the busy streets below, 30-something couples study hefty wine menus.

Margaux is part of the small but burgeoning wine scene in bustling South Korea, now the world’s 11th largest economy. Koreans are drinking more wine these days and wine imports are growing.

“Wine imports hit a record $23 million in 2001, up from $19.8 million in 2000,” says Daryl Brehm, Agricultural Trade Office director at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “Imports are expected to hit $28 million in 2002, maintaining 10% annual growth for 10 years.

“From 2000 to 2001, wine imports from America increased 67% to $5.7 million and U.S. market share grew to 25%. Wine imports from the United States are down a bit in 2002 due to the strong dollar and increased competition. But the trend is for increased U.S. sales,” Brehm says.

Koreans are among world leaders in alcohol consumption, enjoying a traditional liquor called soju, whiskey and beer. Local wine production is nil. Wine imports began in the late 1980s for an older set eager to impress with expensive French wine.

Now Koreans in their 20s and 30s have discovered wine. “Korea’s young generation has seen the world and learned English,” local wine lecturer Jinny Salmon says. “They think wine is French or American and don’t see wine as snobbish.”

French wine dominates with 50% of the market. Red wine is 70%-80% of the market. While American wines are a strong second, they are expensive. Italian, Australian, and Chilean wines are players, bolstered by competitive prices and promotions.

Why is wine becoming more popular in South Korea these days?

“Koreans have more money, tastes have westernized and Koreans are open to new products,” Cave de Vin Co. wine importer A.K. Yoo says. “Wine is seen as healthy and appeals to safe drivers.

Drinking is part of Korean male culture. Wine is now perceived as an alternative to hard liquor, appealing to health-conscious older Koreans, early-rising young professionals and young women. “Young women enjoy wine now,” Salmon says. “It’s healthier than liquor and you can still drive after a few wines.”

Increasingly health-conscious Koreans are impressed with reported health benefits of red wine. Since 1990, many Koreans have traveled, which has westernized tastes and created an interest in new cuisine and wine. Seoul has many foreign restaurants now.

New mass retail chains make wine more accessible. Convenience stores, discount stores, and supermarkets stock affordable wines. Department stores are adding wine departments and wine shops are multiplying.

At a budget-oriented E-Mart near downtown Seoul, shoppers buy groceries, clothing and under-$10 wine. “More wine is being sold in this store, especially to 30ish women,” says importer rep Eun Kyung Oh. “Half is French, followed by Italian, German, American and New Zealand.”

At Hyundai Department Store in the upscale Gangnam neighborhood, wine manager Jung Hoa Ko says: “Our mostly middle-aged customers like $13-$17 wine. French red wine sells best. American wines are popular, but we could sell more if they were less expensive.”

In nearby Yangjae, the Costco outlet features good quality, value wine from many countries. Costco’s Steve Pappas says, “There’s interest in New World wine. We educate our customers through demonstrations and samples.”

Young Korean wine enthusiasts patronize wine bars, belong to wine clubs and Internet wine communities, attend wine schools and exhibits. Mickey Choi’s wine club has many members in their late 20s and 30s, who meet monthly at a restaurant.

Wine bars like Vinotheque host regular wine tasting events. Margaux’s Woo Jin Oh says, “Half the wine we sell is French red wine. Chilean, Australian, Italian and Spanish wine are popular with our budget-conscious, 30ish customers.”

In Korea, American wine producers face a strong French wine image, lack of awareness of wine and aggressive marketing and pricing by export-oriented competitors, who host tasting seminars, invite wine trade and press to overseas wine exhibitions, host wine promotions, organize consumer trips to wineries, participate in local food shows and support local wine schools.

But U.S. producers have advantages and opportunities in Korea. Because of their long U.S. relationship, Koreans can read American wine labels and value American products.

Brehm says, “Since French wine is promoted with French food, Americans can promote their wine’s compatibility with Korean food.”

Korea’s beef and vegetable dishes, including fiery kimchi, go well with full-bodied red wines like Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel, Brehm says. For meals other than red meat, he suggests white wines with a slightly sweeter flavor.

“Mostly expensive U.S. wines have come to Korea,” Brehm says. “We recommend U.S. exporters also send low- and medium-priced wines.

Agane Korea importer Young-Seol Cho says, “Good marketing and more competitive prices will help American wines.”

A tip: Do more promotions and ads, and participate in wine tastings and food shows. Jinro Ltd. importer S.K. Lee says, “France has many wine events in Korea.”

Another tip: Establish contacts with local importers. In Korea there are 20 active wine/liquor importers, most with distribution licenses. Brehm says, “Establish e-mail communications with a local importer and send samples. Visit the importer in Korea and invite him to visit.”

Get to know the California Wine Importers Association, a group of Korean importers formed recently to publicize California wine.

America’s Ironstone Vineyards does well in Korea, working through importer Doosan Liquor and selling $8-$18 wine. Ironstone’s Michael McCheane says the company carefully studied the Korean market. “Doosan understands the market and works closely with us,” he adds.

Doosan’s Ju-Han Lee says, “Brand awareness, distribution, quality wine and reasonable price are the keys. Because we have 29 sales branches and contacts with major retailers, we can help Ironstone.”

Brehm concludes, “Korea is an emerging wine market. Some U.S. wineries pay little attention because it’s not mature. But Koreans are drinking more wine and now s the time to get in. In five years there will be big wine sales.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Fresno Workshop Focused On Filtration

Pa;l Corporation, the global filtration, separation and purification specialist, conducted presentations and live demonstrations on crossflow microfiltration (CFM) at a special wine filtration workshop Oct. 23 at California State University, Fresno.

While filtration is a standard winery practice, CFM is a new technology for U.S. winemakers, enabling them to clarify wine and juice by removing particulates including yeast, bacteria and other grape solids. Pall staffers Nicole Madrid and Lisa Madsen, Ph.D. held workshops on the principals of filtration, filter handling and CFM.

Pre- and post-filtration wine sampling was also on the agenda in conjunction with live CFM demonstrations conducted by Allen Posella and Jim Pinto, also from Pall.

CSU Fresno is the first and only university in the U.S. licensed to produce and sell wine commercially. Enology students attended the workshop to learn from experts in the field. For more information about Pall Corporation and CFM, visit the Web site For more information on Fresno’s viticulture and enology research program, visit the Web site

(Bill Stephens is a freelance writer and newsletter editor based in Los Angeles, and a frequent traveler to Korea. He may be reached at

COPYRIGHT 2003 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group