More wine shops, but choice is still limited in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 9:35am

Like many experiments carried out on a grand scale, Hong Kong's open wine market has certainly raised some anomalies. For instance, the casual observer trapped in one of Sai Ying Pun's traffic jams might have noticed a sign announcing the arrival of Massandra, Crimean wine.

No disrespect to that Ukrainian powerhouse, which has been producing wine for more than 100 years, but those who associate Crimea more with cannon fire than cabernet would be forgiven for thinking Hong Kong has become overrun with oenophiles.

There are now twice as many wine shop chains as there were in 2011

In recent years, Hong Kong has been a veritable petri dish for wine retail - there are now twice as many wine shop chains as there were in 2011. But we are still wondering how representative a few unorthodox bottle shops are of the middle of the bell curve.

In Hong Kong, retailer, importer and wholesaler are usually different arms of the same company. This doesn't always result in drastic consumer savings, as even businesses that haven't invested in a bricks-and-mortar shop keep a marked-up retail pricelist for non-trade customers.

Many businesses settle for something in between, recasting 38th floor offices in industrial buildings as showrooms, with beckoning leather sofas.

While this network for the in-the-know is relatively unique to our market, and certainly worth exploring, where do you look for bottles that can't finance a sumptuous tasting parlour?

Street-level retail has been dominated for years by one name - Watson's - but more than a few challengers have sprung up of late. Sadly, most competitors contribute minimal diversity, and have identical lists that never stray far fromthe letter B.

But some wine shops are breaking the mould, sometimes by emphasising education - etc wine shops, The Flying Winemaker and Ponti Wine Cellar all have educational spaces in their outlets.

Technophilia and well-stocked wine dispensing machines are another draw, with Amo Eno and California Vintage serving the iPad generation. For the idealistic, philosophically driven selections are found at outlets, such as JustGreen Organic Convenience Stores.

Then there's the new kid on the block: online retail. Despite the global nature of the internet, strict international shipping laws and high shipping fees have kept online shopping local.

Once again, the players are mostly the same. So online retail's relationship with real life is more complementary than competitive. But with waived delivery fees and next day shipping ever more common, physical retail spaces with nothing to offer but easy access will feel the pinch.

With that in mind, we're excited to see what tactics shopowners will employ to keep the foot traffic flowing.

On our retail wish list: accessibly categorised shelves, either by overall style, or by occasion; wine selections that are changed weekly; more use of social media (have a great story about your new Alsatian riesling? Tweet it!); and seasonal promotions, like "Staff pick for summer junk trips".

Above all, we're craving sales people we'd like to pop a cork with. We know training and wages are a big investment. But we also know that there are already some absolute corkers out there (excuse the pun).

We have our list of hidden gems - care to share yours?

Debra Meiburg is a Master of Wine