Some years ago I interviewed SA retail royalty Christo Wiese (of Pep Stores and Shoprite-Checkers fame) and asked him how to sell SA wine in the UK. “Someone should start The SA Wine Shop in St. James and stock it with SA icons. I’d even be willing to part-fund it if my wine was included.” Canadian journalist Ross Meder had the same idea and on June 1 2007 opened Margaret River for Asia, a boutique wine retailer on St. Francis Street in Wanchai, central Hong Kong, across the road from upscale French wine emporium les Q and a Chicken Pot shop that sells chicken in a pot.
Wine Australia gives no support which does not best please Ross as around the corner there’s a Portuguese Wine Shop with substantial support from the Portuguese Trade Commission. To see “value for money” and “Margaret River” in the same sentence is unusual, but Ross claims value is his USP and confirms that employees of a large French bank in Wanchai shop at his establishment for this reason.
But then they are probably wine lovers. Not like the smart Chinese gentleman who poked his head round the door shortly after the shop opened and asked for the price of the most expensive bottle. When told it was HK$380, he did not bother to enter. Ross confirms that for many Chinese people “a real wine has to have a French label. But things are changing. When I came to Hong Kong back in 1988, you’d go out for dinner and be offered a tumbler full of Martell brandy or a San Miguel beer. These days it’s either a HK$40 bottle of supermarket wine or Château Latour.” Another problem is that his Aussie wines are too cheap to be taken seriously by some collectors while some customers still ask for Margaret.
Ross specializes in small family wineries and ended up in Margaret River after a direct flight between Hong Kong and Perth was introduced five years ago. A reformed journalist with the South China Morning Post, he remembers the lights going out in the newsroom and trays of chopped up suckling pigs being delivered on 8/8/88. After journalism he tried his hand at website development and an initial Margaret River tourism website soon grew roots when he bought a house from an elderly couple and opened his wine shop.
Initial offerings were restricted to Margaret River producers that he sources and imports himself, helped by the removal of wine import duties last February. To “get more depth on the bench” he has recently included Balnaves Cabernet from Coonawarra and is looking for a Pinot Noir from Tasmania. A Farmer’s Leap Shiraz from Padthaway is already in store “but I only let customers see its 15½% alcohol once they’ve bought a bottle.”
On the question of the existence (or not) of an Asian Palate, Ross thinks there is. “Ladies look for sweet fruity wines. We had a sparkling Shiraz from Wise called Black Bead that flew off the shelves. For men, fruit centric Cabernet fits the bill.” Wise also runs to a cheekily named brand called Half Wit.
Initially 90% of customers were western tourists (“the Brits love us”), a mix that has settled down to 60:40 tourist:locals blend with many of the Chinese customers educated in the West and thus willing to try non-French brands. The success of Margaret River for Asia is surely proof of the existence of a customer base to support a Stellenbosch/Franschhoek/Constantia/fill-in-your-appellation-here Wine Shop for the entrepreneur brave enough to take a chance on the Chinese market that has seen imports increase 50% per annum for the last several years. How about it Christo?