Back to the Future or my new Job in Hong Kong
It has been a few months since I've last updated my wine blog, and I could try to invent all the excuses in the world to explain why I didn't, but I think it is best to stay simple and tell you the truth: I relocated to Hong Kong.
Of course, said like that, it doesn't really explain why I couldn't write anything since then, but the reason why is that I'm not working anymore as a Store Manager and Wine Buyer, tasting more than 10,000 wines a year in one of the greatest city in the world, New York, with enough time in my hands to handle my work, my family, the various tastings and my writing time and still find the time to travel to Europe to taste wines. Instead, I'm now back into the restaurant business as a Head Sommelier & Wine Buyer for a renown restauranteur in Hong Kong, which is great and I love it, but it doesn't leave me much time to write as much as I would like.
So, it is a bit like Back to the Future, because I worked in the restaurant business for nearly 11 years, then went to the US and work in Wine & Spirits retail for 9 years in between, before being back to where I started my career, running around in a restaurant, suggesting food pairings and pouring wines. I still have the passion for it in me and, I must say, even after 9 years, it came back right away. The excitement of sharing these special moments with my customers, be a part of the entertainment, provide exemplary attentive service and redefining who I'm everyday with different customers like an actor will do, all this is fun! Yet, I will just say that age has taken a bit of a tall on me, but hey, I'm not that old and I chose the fun and the adventure, so we'll see... as for now, I'm in Hong Kong.
It has only roughly been two months and a half, and I should be use to it by now, but still, sometimes I wake up... and I'm in Hong Kong! It is a weird yet exciting feeling at the same time. Who knew, nearly 40 years ago, that a little boy like me who mostly spent his time in the vineyards and the countryside in the northern part of Bordeaux will ever, one day, end up working on the other side of the planet? However, it is still quite interesting to keep an open mind and embrace different cultures, being receptive to new and different ideas and opinions and ways of living of others. See the world was one of my many dreams when I was young and I'm pursuing that dream.
Next year, I will celebrate 20 years of working in relation with Wine & Spirits and 15 years as a certified Sommelier and Wine Buyer for restaurants and retails in Bordeaux then (for a very short time) Paris (and quite a few other French towns in between), then London, New York and now Hong Kong.
Hong Kong market is very exciting, yet like most market it has its pros and cons. Here are a few things and facts that I noticed and came to understand over the last 2 months.
- The first obstacle in this market is the fact that most Hong Kong's natives, and Asian in general, do not drink wine or rarely. It is a very young market that need to be educated, despite the number of wine and spirits retails, bars and restaurants, importers, distributors and wine schools, which mushroom everywhere, every month. At the restaurant (where I work, in Central, where a lot money and wealthy people converge), both for lunch and dinner, most tables drink water, warm water for that matter (culture and pollution oblige). Only few dare sometime ordering a glass or two for dinner with their meal, and a full bottle is a rare treat. In general, mostly foreigners (expats and tourists) and Asian people with a certain background or a certain education, people who usually travelled abroad or even went to boarding school in the UK, Europe or the United States, drink wines and order by the bottle. The other drink a lot of water, herbal or floral tea, fruit or vegetable juices, or cocktail, or beer or strong spirits like Cognac or Whiskies.
- The second obstacle is that wine (and pretty much everything else) is terribly expensive in Hong Kong, especially the most well known brands, understandably because wine remains predominantly an imported product. Usually, in most markets I've worked, it is a conflict of interest for the suppliers to sell the same wines, therefore they usually avoid doing it, which also guarantee a better control of the distribution and sales of the brand, especially from the winery point of view. However, in Hong Kong, it is not rare to have multiple suppliers (distributors and importers) selling the same wines (especially the high end ones), sourced in various ways: for example, in most markets, the wines come from the wineries directly; however, in most case scenarios, here in Hong Kong, the wines may come from private buyers and may have already transited before by one or more markets; i.e.: London or New York or else. In fact, I don't think that there are many regulations regarding who buys or sells what and how in terms of wine. Of course, there must be some laws to control the market and guarantee the provenance of the wines, but they are probably not yet as strict as they are in America or in Europe. There is a certain idea of monopole and sole distributor type of operation for certain wines, usually the less well known and small wineries from lesser regions; but for the high end market, I personally experienced the fact of trying to buy a well known brand for the restaurant and received as responses, multiple offers at various prices for the same wine and the same vintage from various suppliers. Which lead me to conclude that one has to do his home work well and buy intelligently to pay the best price for a great bottle in very good condition. I just said that because it is not rare (in retails especially) to find countless amount of fine Bordeaux, Burgundy and Tuscan wines stored indifferently up side up and not on their side as they should be, so beware of dried cork and oxidize wines. Know your retailers or your suppliers for that matter, it is very important.
- Atop these 2 obstacles, the market is overcrowded with wines, suppliers and importers. In fact, pretty much all successful individuals, private investors and major companies that have some spare cash, are already or will in the nearest future import or distribute wines and spirits. If you compare with New York for example, NY counts about 24,000 restaurants and about 2,300 Wine & Spirits retail store for about 8 millions people living in NYC and I heard that the number of wine suppliers (importers and distributors) in NY was roughly about 600; while Hong Kong counts about probably twice more restaurants for a population of 7+ millions inhabitants, definitely twice less wine retail stores; yet twice more suppliers than NYC overlooking in most case scenarios the business on both side: Hong Kong and mainland China (which is huge and could very quickly become bigger than NYC and London market combined, if they continue to grow at this pace). It is a young and exciting, yet rapidly evolving market somewhat comparable to New York 15-20 years ago.
- Hong Kong has a predominantly service-based economy, and restaurant businesses serve as a main economic contributor. Restaurants are literally everywhere in the street, in the shopping malls, in the private residences and even in companies building. With the third-densest population per square meters in the world and serving a population of 7+ million, Hong Kong is host to a restaurant industry with intense competition. Due to its small geographical size, Hong Kong contains a high number of restaurants per unit area. With Chinese ethnicity making up 98% of the resident population, Chinese cuisine is naturally served at home and in most restaurants. A majority of Chinese in Hong Kong are Cantonese in addition to sizeable numbers of Hakka, Teochew and Shanghainese people, and home dishes are Cantonese with occasional mixes of the other three types of cuisines. Rice is predominantly the main staple for home meals. Home ingredients are picked up from local grocery stores and independent produce shops, although supermarkets have become progressively more popular. Hong Kong homes and kitchens tend to be small due to a high population density, and traditional Chinese cuisine often requires the freshest possible ingredients, so food shopping is undertaken frequently and in smaller quantities than is now usual in the West. Take-out and dining out is also very common, since people are often too busy to cook with an average 47-hour work week. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
- The market is wide open to anyone and competition is fierce. And that is where my problem resides, it is very difficult to find the good wines amongst this ocean of brands and labels; because most companies carry only a few very interesting and renown brands, leading the pack of their portfolio, lost in the middle of a huge amount of unknown producers and wineries. It has been very difficult for me to redo the wine list for the restaurant, for the 200+ wines that I chose roughly come from 20+ suppliers, which is not that easy to handle. Instead of buying from a few suppliers only and keep it simple, I only bought a few wines from various suppliers (usually the ones that I knew and the ones that I tasted and presented a certain uniqueness due to their grape variety or the region they where from), to incorporate more incentive wines in the wine-list. I somehow wish that I will have bought these wines from less suppliers; yet I felt oblige to work that way to create an eclectic, more interesting and somewhat out of the beaten path wine-list that is both complete, offering a wide array of wines from the various major producing countries around the world, and attractive, giving the chance to the customers to explore and discover wines from lesser known grape varieties and regions.
- The other difficulty is that the market is still dictated by the two most expensive French regions. Hong Kong is the hub for countless retail stores and suppliers offering mainly the same Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, with a significant section for Australian and New Zealand, but that is about it. Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Austria and the US, and the rest of the world for that matter, are still pretty poorly represented; yet it is definitely better than it was only a few years ago. The biggest problem is that most of the best vintages are sold to private buyers and some restaurants, but most retails mostly carry the lesser vintage. For example with Bordeaux, it is very difficult to find 2000, 2005 or 2006 or older great vintage, but you can find plenty of 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007 and older vintages which were not great respectively for various reasons. It is the same with Burgundy and the Rhone, and I'm not even talking about Loire Valley or the Languedoc, because one can barely find anything from these regions. To finish my thoughts about the bad vintages, sorry to say it bluntly, but even the greatest producers can craft mediocre wines in bad vintages. And, although an established brand or label or producer usually implies reliability, a renown brand can not entirely control or ensure the quality of a vintage or the evolution of the wine in the bottle or the way the wines have been stored (even with the newest techniques), especially for bad vintages. And even if producers have more and more difficulty to admit that they are still bad vintages due to technical progress and experiences, I can still say with conviction that they are still mediocre and bad vintages, and as proof of it, I will suggest you to do as often as you can some vertical tastings, which emphasize differences between various vintages of the same wine.
- In my opinion, Hong Kong is still a young and opportunistic market trying to fool the customers with established, expensive brands, too often available in ok to mediocre vintages, selling the names rather than insuring the quality of the product. This situation has changed a bit over the last few years apparently from what I heard, but still and I witnessed it, certain suppliers remain overwhelmed with unsold stocks of older, mediocre vintages of certain established and also unknown brands, which is definitely true for reds but more especially for the whites. Due to their high prices for the most well-known or lack of marketing or promotion or even knowledge for the lesser known, these wines are hard to sell and it often takes longer for the suppliers to empty their stocks because of the increasing competition. Moreover, I come to realize that some of these suppliers are very young in this business and have no wine background, too often just basic knowledge and barely no experience in previously choosing or selling wines. Some apparently did it without passion, more for fun and some lucrative ambitions. Therefore, as I said earlier, it is important to know your suppliers and the storage condition of your wine in Hong Kong, especially with the subtropical warm and humid climate. Don't get me wrong, not all suppliers are like that, some are doing a great job, but I was and still am astonished by the amount of unbalanced, mediocre or even bad wines that I found here, even with recognizable established brands, and also how old the whites can be (you can still find some 2004, 05, 06 and 07 in whites which were not supposed to age that long and some that I tasted were totally oxidize and deep yellow in color, however some suppliers were still trying to sell those....unbelievable). Yet, if like in any market you can find find bad wines, there are also some really good wines if you take the time to search for them and taste them. At the end of the day, the only way to define the quality of a wine is to taste it, and only your taste buds will define if you will like the wine or not, not the label or the name of the wine.
- Until only a few years ago, the situation was even worse because Bordeaux and Burgundy with some of the Super Tuscans were the only wines that you could find and buy. Nowadays, it is definitely better and consumers and suppliers are more wine savvy, because over the last 3 years the market has seen a surge of importers and distributors who thought that bringing wines to Hong kong, was a lucrative business and overflowed the market with all sort of wines... which usually push the interest of people to learn, read and get more acquainted with wine, and thus explain the fairly recent enthusiasm for Hong Kong people to know about and enjoy drinking wine.
In conclusion for this post about this subject, I will say that lucrative the market was, maybe 2-3 years ago, but the market is now saturating. There are still a few niches that haven't been explored, but otherwise, the place is pretty full and new suppliers seem to emerge at the door of the restaurant nearly everyday. It is a really tough market. And the incredible amount of Wine and Spirits fairs and expositions and tastings happening in Hong Kong every month, is surely a sign of the desire for the population to learn about and appreciate wine, but it is also a sign that suppliers constantly need to promote their wines to be able to sell them due to the ever increasing competition and the ever growing number of labels, brands, producers and wineries from all around the world available in this market.
I will continue to describe the Hong Kong market and my various experiences in this incredible city, but I will stop here for today.... I could get carried away and write much more as I very often do, but it is already enough for a first post after nearly 3 months without one. And it is already late at night. Good night.
To be continued....
LeDom du Vin now in Hong Kong