Does a wine culture exist in Asia? A number of Westerners don't think so. But Hong Kong is trying to prove them wrong.
“Are we Asia's major storage center? Are we Asia's leading fine wine auction center?” Anthony Wong asks a room full of businessmen at the Wine and Spirits Fair in Wan Chai.
His pep talk gets an almost instant response; a resounding yes from the wine industry's biggest players. But there is, at least, one dissenter.
Hong Kong is quickly becoming the wine and distribution hub of Asia, especially after the abolition of wine duties in February 2008. In the first eight months of 2009, the wine and distribution industry made up 42% of imports, and was worth HK$2.4 billion (US$ 309.7 million) This is more than the HK$1.6 billion (US$206.5 million) earned by the industry in 2007—all this despite the global economic downturn.
Permanent Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Yvonne Choi says, “Hong Kong is well positioned to play a key role (in the industry).” Aside from its geographical proximity to the Mainland, the world city also shares the same language and culture. Last year, Hong Kong received 17 million visitors from Mainland China.
Choi says Asia has its own style of cuisine and wine appreciation, and Hong Kong is well recognized as the center of culinary arts in the region. Another reason, perhaps, why Hong Kong has fostered a very conducive environment for wine trading and the development of wine-related businesses.
Wong, founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Logistics Research Center, says that the former British colony is the “world's leading container port.” Its large number of international logistics and transportation firms is a great boon to the wine and distribution process.
Hong Kong also has a strong commitment to becoming Asia's wine hub, Wong adds. The city developed extensive international trading knowledge and an excellent IT backbone. Combined with an integrated network of intermodal transportation services, Wong predicts “We will be leading the world in the coming decades.”
In order to reach its full potential as a wine hub in Asia, Hong Kong has inked an agreement with the Mainland regarding what they call “facilitation measures” for wine and other related products exported there. The Hong Kong government is also assisting the industry in coming up with a scheme for accrediting storage facilities that meet a certain standard of excellence. The accreditation scheme is being developed by the Hong Kong Quality Assurance Agency, and will likely be launched by the end of the year.
The government is also synchronizing the strategies of various agencies, such as the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council, Invest Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Tourism Board. One result of this is the government dubbing 2009 “Hong Kong Food and Wine Year” and aggressively marketing wine-and-dine promotions to consumers. Other key promotional events include the annual Wine & Spirits Fair attended by 525 exhibitors from 34 countries.
Another step forward is the development of wine education and training programs in schools like the Vocational Training Council and the School of Professional and Continuing Education at the University of Hong Kong (HKU SPACE). HKU SPACE has even collaborated with the Bordeaux Ecolé Management in France to launch Asia's first wine MBA program in 2010.
Medley of Flavors
The global industry expects Hong Kong to overtake London as having the world's second largest wine auction next to New York, and Hong Kong is determined to realize this dream.
Hong Kong is the fastest growing market, and Liv-ex Limited director James Miles says new markets like China and Hong Kong will have a dramatic impact on the industry. As the UK has overtaken France in wines, so may Hong Kong surpass London.
But French wine critic and professor Michel Bettane says new markets are still in their infancy. According to Wine & Spirits Education Trust UK director David Wrigley, “Wine culture in new places such as Hong Kong does not exist.” David clarifies that having a wine culture means having a sense of familiarity with them as in countries like the UK and France. Hong Kong, it seems, is still too young to drink fine wines. He agrees, however, that it is the logical bridge into the Chinese market.
Bettane cautions that “Wine investment is no panacea.” Investors should never lose sight of the fact that all wines are meant to be served. He says “Art is art. A painting is a painting.” In fine wine, there is a place for both pleasure and investment—and you can only hold onto a bottle for so long. “Normal destination is to drink it. It has value. It goes down or up. You decide if its for investment or for fun,” says Bettane.
Choi counters, “Hong Kong's development as a wine hub is no accident. It is an example of how a little creative thinking, determined planning, and private sector enterprise can open up new opportunities in a small economy such as ours—even during times of economic uncertainty.” That's something all Asians should drink to.
Print ed: 12/09