Italian wines get a leg-up in the Mainland Chinese market with the help of alibaba, writes James Suckling
n event took place across Mainland China last month whose impact on the global wine market I suspect will continue for quite a few years. Organised by the e-commerce platform Alibaba, the inaugural Wine Day was designed to excite Chinese consumers about Italian wines and wine culture. It took place on September 9—after the deadline for writing this column, so I cannot confirm the projected participation of 100 million people.
Wine Day was announced in April at the massive trade show Vinitaly in Verona by Alibaba founder Jack Ma. He said he hoped it would repeat the online sales success of the company’s Singles Day, an unofficial mainland holiday targeting unmarried Chinese consumers held on November 11 last year. Singles Day brought in more than US$14 million in online sales in just one day, and I expect the value of wine sales on September 9 will have been significantly higher. My company provided content, including videos and interviews, to help Alibaba’s premium retail platform, Tmall, promote Italian wines for the event.
The Wine Day concept makes sense as an efficient way to communicate the interest and enjoyment of wine to consumers. Until now, it’s been difficult to create a single message for Chinese consumers about wine due to the vast size of the country and segmented communication on the subject. In fact, the communication of wine as a complex and civilised beverage has been relatively poor in China; most discussion has been about wine education rather than wine appreciation, which doesn’t expand the market. Worse, a lot of the communication in the past was about wine as an investment and had nothing to do with building a foundation of loyal wine lovers. This, of course, has changed with the recent evolution of governmental policies. Wine investment, as investment in general in luxury goods, is frowned upon.
None of the above will have been the case on September 9, as the focus of Wine Day was on drinking and enjoying wine. In the end, drinking wine is the best way to learn about it; it’s the experience of sharing a good bottle with friends and family, and appreciating the moment and understanding the goodness of wine. Alibaba expects to triple its online wine sales with the help of Wine Day this year. Tmall sold more than 230 million bottles last year, with 80 per cent of the sales being imported wines, according to the company.
Chinese consumers know very little about Italian wines. I am certain that many Chinese only believe France makes serious wine. China’s annual imports of Italian wines run to about US$2 billion, according to Reuters, citing figures released by think tank Nomisma, well behind the figures for French, Australian, Spanish and Chilean wines. “Right now, 6 per cent of the wines we sell in China are Italian,” Ma said during Vinitaly. “We want to change that 6 per cent into 60 per cent, and help you sell as much Italian wine in China as possible.”
I believe Ma’s goal of Italian wine accounting for almost two out of three bottles of wine sold in China is a little optimistic, to say the least. But anything as powerful as Alibaba pushing to increase wine sales in China, whether from Italy or elsewhere, has to be a good thing in the long run. China will one day take its rightful place as the world’s greatest wine market.