Asian grapevine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2011, 12:00am


Earlier this week I spoke at a luxury market conference in Florence called the Milano Fashion Global Summit, now in its 10th year. For the first time, I thought more about what I should wear than what wines might be poured. How can one not be self-conscious when surrounded by heads of fashion houses such as Patrizio di Marco, chairman and CEO of Gucci, and Michele Norsa, CEO of Ferragamo?

The theme of the summit was 'Options of Luxury - the Voice of China', but there were speakers from the non-fashion world such as Davide Traxler, CEO of watch and jewellery manufacturer Chopard Italy, and Albiera Antinori, vice-chairman of Marchesi Antinori. Since my talk was about the link between wine and luxury and, specifically, between Italian wine and China, I pored over KPMG, Bain and McKinsey luxury market reports as well as the latest figures about how Italian wines are faring in the marketplace.

The more I read and researched about the link between Italy and China, the more I found. I should not be talking about building bridges between these two countries but rather dusting off and rediscovering ones built centuries ago. Two thousand years ago, the greatest, most advanced civilisations were the Roman empire and the Chinese empire during the Han dynasty (206BC to AD220). It was this far back that the two greatest powers of the world began to know each other and build bridges, very long ones that spanned across west China, eastern Europe and the Middle East. This route came to be known as the Silk Road. From Xian, the capital of China at that time, Emperor Qin Shihuang, who built the terracotta soldiers, encouraged the trading routes that led to the Mediterranean Sea and to Rome.

Of course, there is Marco Polo who spent 17 years travelling through China during the Yuan dynasty, when the Mongolian Kublai Khan was in power. His descriptions of China during the 13th century still serve as historical reference points. The Italian who is less celebrated, but has contributed much to the Italian-Chinese relationship, is Matteo Ricci. He was a Jesuit priest who arrived in China in 1583 during the Ming dynasty to convert the Chinese to Christianity. Ricci was open minded, friendly and respectful, and introduced clocks and sundials as well as Western mathematics, astronomy and geography. He is credited with publishing the first maps of China. Ricci lived in China for 27 years and paved the way for other Italians to establish links with China.

Fast-forward to modern times and the road to China is far more complicated than the ancient Silk Road routes. With China closed to the world during the Mao Zedong era, an entire generation or two have forgotten the old ties between Italy and China. Recently, Italian producers seem to be waking up to the reality that they may be getting left behind in the fierce race for a slice of the Chinese wine market pie. In Hong Kong, the Gelardini & Romani auction held last month of all Italian wines was 94 per cent sold with many of the wines such as Masseto going for above the high estimates. Not bad during a time when other auctions are struggling to achieve results of 90 per cent sold.

The mainland luxury market is growing and the Milano Fashion Global Summit brought together top Italian fashion houses that announced plans for expansion. Ferragamo now has 58 stores on the mainland and Gucci 45. The numbers sound impressive but Gucci chairman di Marco said, 'We are doing only 5 per cent of what we could be doing in China. We need to do more and to react faster to the market demand.'

The majority shareholder behind Gucci is self-made billionaire Francois Pinault. His daughter, Florence Rogers-Pinault, is president of Chateau Latour, yet the two big companies have not often been associated together. The Ferragamo family purchased Il Borro, an estate and vineyard area that is also the name of their wine. Here, fashion and wine mix together fluidly with Salvatore Ferragamo, the grandson of the founder of the famous shoe company, promoting their wines around the world.

Despite the example of Gucci, in France, the ties with fashion and wine are equally strong: Chanel and Chateau Rauzan Segla, Hermes and Chateau Fourcas Hosten and, of course, Bernard Arnault with his fashion and wine empire under the LVMH group. These chateaux are discovering that the fashion wine worlds have many overlaps. For the 2009 vintage, Karl Lagerfeld (designer for Chanel) created the Rauzan Segla label.

Listening to the speakers from the fashion world talk about their incredible expansion plans for the mainland, I could see the potential of Italian wines if they could follow in the same path. Wine companies tied to fashion houses should co-market together. Many Gucci and Ferragamo customers are women and that is an untapped market on the mainland. Bringing wine into the marketing strategy would deliver a stronger lifestyle message. It would also boost the sex appeal of the wines, which could use the help.

Getting customers to buy quality merchandise is easy; winning brand loyalty is challenging. Incorporating wine and food, and presenting it as a holistic lifestyle package, may be the way to go. Selling goods is simple, but winning hearts must be done through experience. What better way than with food and wine?

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. E-mail her at Find her at