In recent weeks, I spent time in Shenzhen, Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou. I didn't stay long in each city, but I did enjoy some nice meals and chats with many food and wine lovers.
One evening in Hangzhou, I was fortunate enough to sit next to a charming, very attractive woman in her 30s. It is rare that I am seated next to a woman over a long wine dinner, so I was intrigued to find out more about her background.
She said that, along with a passion for golf, she became interested in wine as a hobby about five years ago. Since then, she has become so involved that she is now a consultant and adviser to wealthy friends who have become clients. She sources fine wine from all over the world to build cellars for her private clients.
What impressed me were her questions about each wine that was presented at the dinner we shared and her enthusiasm. She has always lived in Hangzhou but her English was nearly flawless, and from our conversation, it was clear that she was well travelled.
Forget the stereotypical Chinese male wine drinker who is buying by label. The real growth segment of wine drinkers lies in women (or men) like the one seated next to me in Hangzhou: savvy, connected, knowledgeable, price-conscious and passionate about wine. In Shanghai, I met a woman who buys for her family; a serious collector. Her husband looked on proudly as she described some of the wines she bought recently to fill the gaps in their collection. She clearly does her homework and has strong opinions about her preferred styles and producers.
These very opinionated women were also clear about criticism. The Shanghainese woman said: 'I know Hong Kong women think they are more sophisticated, but this is not true. Being more Western doesn't make you more sophisticated.'
The woman in Hangzhou was more direct: 'I know what Hong Kong people think about mainland Chinese who are new to wine. They think we don't know how to appreciate, and we drink only by label. How can they criticise when we fund their economy? Do they create anything themselves? They ride on other people's coat-tails.'
I heard similar snipes elsewhere. I hadn't realised until this recent visit that there is a tension between serious wine lovers in China who are quickly catching up with Hong Kong wine enthusiasts. Part of this defensiveness may be attributed to the fact that China has come a long way in the past 10 years. The mainland wine-drinking community didn't travel as much then as they do now, they didn't have access to the vast array of wines, and their understanding of wines was modest compared with that of their Hong Kong counterparts. But much has changed and, with it, the profile of the wine buyer.
After many of the dinners, I was invited to other venues. This is typical of the Asian style, two-tier drinking evenings. Start out with wine and dinner, then progress to another venue to continue drinking. Though I could not partake each time, I did manage to visit some bars, including a jazz bar, after two of my dinners.
At the jazz bar, we enjoyed a bottle of wine, and my host said wine was now the most popular after-dinner beverage served in sophisticated bars in Shanghai and Beijing. Wine may not grace the lists of many local restaurants, but in bars and other drinking venues it is overtaking popular cocktails and hard liquor, especially among women.
I am now convinced that wine growth will continue unabated on the mainland even if the economy slows. Those who have caught the wine bug know that it isn't just about collecting labels and showing off to friends and colleagues; it is about unravelling the mysteries of a wonderful, enticing beverage and making wine a part of their lives.