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Wine Pioneering in Beijing – wine retailer and wholesaler Johnny Chan

Wine Pioneering in Beijing – wine retailer and wholesaler Johnny Chan – Brief Article

Kevin Sinclair

Hong Kong wine pioneer Johnny Chan hopes the new century will see a new era in wine sales in China. With three major retail wine outlets already up and running in the heart of Beijing, he now plans a purpose-built wholesale hub to handle wine and spirits, for the hotel and restaurant trade.

Chan’s landmark progress has not been easily achieved. The former financier and electronics manufacturer has been knocking his head often fruitlessly, he admits, on China’s cellar doors for almost a decade.

He has tramped around a score of wine exhibitions, helped famous winemakers stage food festivals and organize tastings and has spent seemingly endless hours in lengthy negotiating sessions with government officials.

Finally, these efforts seem to be paying dividends.

Last year, Chan opened a 300 square-foot wine outlet in the Kempinski Hotel building. This expansive building is regarded as the German center of Beijing; the shelves are well-lined with Riesling as well as other wines. Customers are mostly expatriates.

In December, he opened an 800 square-foot outlet in China World, a massive commercial-hotel-retail outlet said to be the third biggest complex of its kind in the world. Close to many major hotels and to Tienanmen Square, it caters largely to wealthy Chinese.

Educational Effort

Chan sees his commercial efforts in China as part of a wider educational drive. A canny businessman, he’s out to make money. But he sees profits being driven not just by thirst, but by knowledge.

“As Chinese get wealthier and more knowledgeable about wine, they are naturally going to expand their drinking horizons,” he proclaims.

The owner of Brown’s, Hong Kong’s leading wine bar, and the well-known Hong Kong wine shop, Decanter, Johnny Chan has been a leading wine merchant for more than a decade.

He’s now keen to establish the British Wine and Spirits Education Trust courses in Asia, as the leading standard teaching medium in the wine industry. Courses, he stresses, would be for keen wine drinkers as well as professionals.

His outlets in Beijing carry about 700 different labels “everything from 90 yuan (US$9) to 19,000 yuan (US $1,900)” to appeal to every wallet and taste. He imports from France, California, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Hungary, among other places.

“I’ve got 45 different Spanish wines on sale in Beijing, but only one wine from Chile,” he says. That’s because he promised his good friend, winemaker Auerlio Montes who owns Montes wines, that he would only handle his label in China. It’s costing Chan money, but a promise is a promise.

Wholesale Center

His next step is an ambitious move to become a general wholesale importer, setting up a distribution warehouse in Beijing. This is aimed specifically at the hotel trade. It would remove a lot of the present agony, form filling, question answering and complex taxation and customs payments for hotels and restaurants. Chan’s idea is that he would go through the agony of dealing with the cumbersome and slow Chinese import requirements, rather than hotel and restaurant staff having to wrestle with the problem.

“Then hotel and restaurant managers would just have to call in or fax their orders and have them delivered, as in any other country,” he says. In the past, such wholesale importing has been extremely difficult, at best, and impossible as the norm.

The first step is to educate staff, and Chan has patiently sat with his retail workers through lengthy wine tastings and lectures. “It’s pointless having people trying to sell wine to novice drinkers unless they can explain adequately the tastes, histories and complexities of different regions and grapes,” he maintains.

Another big advantage in buying from Chan is that buyers can be confident they are getting what they pay for. After a number of frightening counterfeit cases, when bottles bearing labels of expensive vintages turned out to be cheap plonk, hotel executives are understandably careful of sourcing wines.

As these retail, wholesale and educational drives come together, Johnny Chan is also going into the wide world of the web, with chinawine web.com. At first in English, this site will later be in Chinese, advising customers what is on the shelves in his shops and warehouse.

“I’ve been working on this for years,” Chan says, as he sips a deep red Argentinian wine in his Beijing shop. “I hope to make the wine trade in China transparent.”

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