China's wine women on song
It's Saturday and a group of professional women in Beijing are out for a fun afternoon in the trendy Sanlitun district. Instead of perusing the boutiques they have opted for a more intense, but equally pleasurable, activity.
They are learning about wine. Importer Campbell Thompson, a Putonghua speaker, invites them to sample glasses of Australian shiraz, chardonnay and pinot noir, carefully explaining the characteristics of each.
The wine-imbibing friends are keen to acquire knowledge that might help them when choosing the correct wines at business dinners.
According to wine educators on the mainland, a new breed of women middle managers are enthusiastic would-be oenophiles, willing to stump up HK$2,000 for one-day specialist courses.
'Men in China tend to be much more into trophy tasting, whereas the girls do it because they actually like wine,' wine consultant Fongyee Walker says. Walker, co-founder of Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting, which runs courses accredited by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, estimates that women make up 70 per cent of classes.
'The last time I taught an intermediate class of eight students, just two were male,' she says.
'The women who attend classes are normally between 25 and 35, not necessarily married, with some experience of working, or studying, overseas or working in an overseas company. They view wine as something very fashionable and interesting, and what I love is that they are not afraid to buy wines they like, rather than what they think they should like.'
She says companies in the wine trade are keen to hire women because a lot of the business is done by charming the managers of restaurants, supermarkets and hotels, 'and nobody does that better than a pretty 30-year-old lady'.
Among women sampling offerings from boutique distributor Wine Republic is Yue Jingwen, 42, who moved back to Beijing after many years running a travel business in Germany. The job took her to vineyards, where she developed a fondness for wine. After returning to live in the capital, she began importing 1,800 bottles annually from Germany.
'I don't like to drink Chinese spirits, they are too harsh,' Yue says. 'Wine is a very special drink when it is served with a meal but most Chinese people do not realise this.
'Wine is very expensive here. If I told my mother I had spent 500 yuan (HK$590) on a bottle just for luxury, she would think I was crazy, but if I explained that part of the reason was to improve my knowledge, she would understand.'
Entrepreneur Carole Lahournere is tapping into the increasing demand by shipping in wines from select vineyards in her native France, often selling directly to female connoisseurs.
'When we make individual sales to homes, it is almost always women who do the ordering,' says Lahournere, whose company, Le Baron, sells wines costing between HK$200 and HK$3,000 a bottle. 'The women I meet always tell me that that wine is good for health and the skin.'
Until a decade ago, it was rare to see Chinese women drinking any form of alcohol, or smoking cigarettes. But the new generation of office workers, who typically earn HK$10,000 to HK$15,000 a month and still live at home, have ample cash to splurge on holidays, handbags and Haut Medoc.
One advantage for wine merchants is that the government is trying to steer drinkers away from liquor and towards grape wine, as it is referred to in Chinese. Figures published by International Wine and Spirits Research show that the mainland imported 90 million litres of wine in 2009, double the volume of the previous year.
The Chinese thirst for wine has led to more importers setting up shop every year, among them Enoterra, a Shanghai-based outfit, owned by French and South Korean investors, which brings in crates from Chile, Argentina, South Africa and France. Unusually, Enoterra also operates its own wine bars - three in Shanghai and one in Beijing.
Operations director Tomaz Hladnik, a Slovenian, says women wine drinkers have been a significant factor in soaring sales during the past three years.
'Wine drinking is becoming a trend, it is not just limited to the elite or those who have been exposed to foreign culture or travelled abroad,' he says. 'Chinese are very eager learners. In our wine bars, women are big drivers of revenue. They are more picky when it comes to choosing wine - they are not as price conscious as the men, probably because they are not always paying.
'However, a relatively new phenomenon is women who come in groups of two or three. They have a couple of bottles of wine, tapas and cheese platters, and the bill often comes to 1,000 yuan.'
A number of women hold high-profile roles in the mainland wine trade, including Hong Kong-based Judy Leissner, who runs the widely-praised Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province; Emma Gao, whose Silver Heights winery in Ningxia is earning accolades galore; and Julia Zhu, sommelier at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing hotel.
Nicolas Carre, who runs Bordeaux-accredited wine courses, says women tend to appreciate the wine's subtleties more than men. The majority of his private students are women, prepared to pay HK$230 an hour for one-on-one tuition.
'I think it is an area where women can dominate the men,' he says. 'Women are much more interested in the feelings about the wine, whereas the men are interested in numbers and production.'
Walker could not agree more.
'The biggest eye-opener when it comes to women drinking wine was a course we did for the Wine Australia trade body in Shanghai,' she says. 'There were 26 women and two men! At another dinner, we had a blind tasting on the stage. It was all women who volunteered, and the best tasters were women. That is a trend all over the world, women are the better tasters.'