Monday, March 17, 2014, 09:16
Wine growers go online to boost sales by the crate
By Todd Balazovic

Although domestic brands hold the sway, the Internet is proving to be a great equalizer for foreign wine producers as they deliberate on how to pop the cork in the world's fastest-growing wine market.

Smartphones in tow, the country's young generation of tech-savvy wine drinkers are now using the medium cut out the middleman and make informed purchases of wines from across the world.

"Chinese people are very sophisticated. They're armed with smartphones now," says Jim Boyce, author of Beijing-based wine blog, Grape Wall of China.

'Ten years ago they might have gone to the department store and just stood in the aisle looking at French wines thinking - What are these? What is in these bottles?"

With more than 500 million Internet users nationwide, online wine sales accounted for 27 percent of all the wine purchases made in China last year, says a report published by the France-based Bourdeaux Management School.

This was compared with just 8 to 10 percent of wines purchased online in Europe and 2 percent in the United States, the report said. Global wine sales are worth more than $5 billion every year.

Capitalizing on strong online sales, Amazon began offering Californian wines through its Chinese portal in October last year. More than 50 percent of the initial sales conducted online went to Shanghai.

Californian wine exports to China hit an all-time high of $35 million last year, making it the fifth-largest export market, says Linsey Gallagher, vice-president of the Wine Institute, a Californian wine advocacy group representing more than 1,000 wineries.

Capitalizing on the momentum, wine producers have begun hosting digital wine tasting, shipping a box of their product to Shanghai before logging onto Skype and walking Chinese wine experts through the tasting process. More than a dozen such events were hosted last year, Gallagher says.

With a tight budget, it allows the community of growers to reach across the Pacific to work with Chinese experts and distributors without the huge cost of travel.

"We have to get creative and innovative - after all, that's what our wines are known for," she says.

"This is a way for us to reach that market and show off some of our fantastic wine makers during the times we're not able to be physically in the market."

During the Nov 11 Singles Day, which marks the country's largest volume of online sales, Chinese wine importer Summergate Fine Wines sold more than 100,000 bottles in a 24-hour period, according to a spokesperson.

With many small wine producers unable to have direct representation in China, the Internet is an essential tool for producers who would otherwise have to spend thousands in marketing, Boyce says.

Even with a Beijing office, social media has proven critical for French wine producer Le Ponty.

With a small team working out of its Beijing office, Helene Le Ponty says using platforms such as WeChat, a mobile text, voice messaging and payment service, and Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, have allowed the company to reach potential customers they would have otherwise overlooked.

"In order to compete in cities such as Beijing, foreign wine producers are having to become much more sophisticated in how they find potential customers," Le Ponty says.

"If you're not utilizing things such as Weibo, you're missing out."