The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Brilliance in the Basics

How the simplest wines can carry the most weight

Among the 25,000 bottles we keep on hand in Hong Kong, we have some impressive names –Sassicaia, Gaja, Masseto and Ornellaia.  They’re the most sought-after names in the world, but many merchants can present these very same wines.  While we have those in abundance, I’m most proud of the very few, carefully selected expressions we have in the most common categories of Pinot Grigio, Prosecco and Chianti Classico.   Brilliance in the basics.

While Hong Kong is certainly a town built on Bordeaux and Whiskey, we are fortunate to enjoy a bustling and quickly growing Italian fine dining scene.  In such a competitive environment, it is those restaurants who offer the highest quality at every price point to their clients that earn loyal patrons.  It is here that restaurants look to us to introduce a stunning new Pinot Grigio like Borgo dei Santi’s 2010, which instantly became an IWM staff favorite for its flinty, creaminess that will match so many Italian and local Chinese dishes.  Marco Fantinel’s Prosecco Extra Brut, recently featured on VH1 and in Food & Wine Magazine, is the only Prosecco we offer in our entire portfolio.  This is the ultimate compliment that we can give to a wine, declaring that while there are other fine options, this is the very best recommendation we can make in a highly competitive category.   I firmly believe that everyone who tastes this gorgeous Prosecco will be instantly converted, as I was at first taste.   And the recently received Chianti Classico from Villa dei Freschi has created a loyal following quickly in some of Hong Kong’s most popular venues.

It’s no secret that these most well known categories in Italian wine offer a multitude of options, some of lesser quality than others.  Any merchant or restaurant can bring out their best bottles of the biggest names to create a terrific first impression.  But I know those that can offer something memorable in a Pinot Grigio, Prosecco or Chianti are focused on presenting a true experience at every level, and will have me hooked as a loyal patron.

What’s In a Name?

Does a wine called “&*!!#* Nuts” taste as sweet?

Last week The Drinks Business reported on an unfortunate word association in international wine names. Let us assume for argument’s sake that this story is true, though some readers contend that it may or may not be. There’s no disputing the fact that sometimes product names translate poorly into other languages. One only has to think of the Chevy Nova debacle in South America–no one wants a car whose name means “No Go.” Of course, that story is false, something that furthers the doubt cast upon the one reported by The Drinks Business.

The current debate surrounds a Chilean wine whose name theoretically translates phonetically to an unprintable epithet in Cantonese. This incident immediately brings to mind a case I’d recently written about, that of Chateau Beychevelle’s label that features a Dragon Boat and has resulted in explosive sales in Asia.  And of course, Chateau Lafite featuring the Chinese symbol for lucky number 8 on its 2008 label resulted in a 20-percent spike in value in just 36 hours, and it thrilled locals, investors and especially local investors.

So clearly there’s something in a name.  This recent article is merely one of the first to report the downside to having a wine name that may not be well received in a foreign market. I’ve had personal experience in negotiating the translation of a name. When I was choosing my Chinese name, I got the recommendation that I go with Lo Bun, which sounds enough like Ruben and has positive word associations.  Fortunately I had guidance in my selection, or I may have made the same mistake I made years ago in Italy pronouncing Buon Anno a bit incorrectly on New Year’s and coming off as a bit frisky.

No matter whether you believe this current wine linguistic faux pas, there’s no disputing that Hong Kong and China consumers are overwhelmed as thousands of new brands enter the market. The slightest oversight in branding can cause unforeseen disaster or success, I suppose, for any wine or product no matter the quality.  Sure, novelty can be rewarding, such as the Marilyn Merlot (Happy 25th Anniversary), but I must believe winemakers are usually more interested in selling what’s in the bottle than what’s on the label. Still, Chateau Beychevelle’s recent sales surge suggests the wisdom of thinking carefully before releasing your wine in Asia.

While a Coca-Cola by any other name would taste just as sweet, no one wants to enjoy a soft drink whose name means “female horse stuffed with wax.” Whatever the motivation, it seems a little market research is always a fine idea. Even if you’re making Coca Cola.


New Year in Hong Kong, an Expat’s Guide

The food, the symbolism and the meaning of a traditional New Year’s feast in Hong Kong

The Year of the Dragon is upon us, with Hong Kong awash in symbolic decoration.  The preparation for large family ‘reunion’ dinners was on full display minutes ago as I walked behind a wine delivery team wheeling eight cases of Dom Pérignon and Chateau Beychevelle downhill on busy Wellington St in Central district. Like so many customs of Chinese New Year, Chateau Beychevelle is beloved not only for its quality, but also for its symbolism. Known as ‘Dragon Boat’ wine, Chateau Beychevelle’s has become immensely popular in China as the dragon boat on its label is regarded as symbol of luck. Prices of this wine have soared in recent years as a result.

It can be very easy for an expatriate to miss all of the symbolism that Chinese New Year customs entail, so I’d like to share a few that I’ve learned. For fans of delicious homonyms and symbolic cuisine, I present a brief introduction to traditional Chinese New Year dining:

Yau Yu – A fish dish, as the pronunciation is similar to saying that you will have money remaining.

Fat Choy – AKA Black Moss, it looks a bit like chest hair, but symbolizes wealth in its pronunciation. In Hong Kong we wish each other Kung Hei Fat Choi for prosperity in the New Year.

Ho See – Dried Oysters, pronounced the same as an expression for ‘good business.’  Thus the dish Ho See Fat Choy encourages good business in the New Year.

Nian Gao – A glutinous ‘year cake’ whose pronunciation also sounds like ‘high year.’  Eating nian gao is for hopes of promotion and increased fortune. Nian Gao from Guangdong is generally sweeter than that of Shanghai.

Tang Yuan – Sweet dumplings enjoyed at the end of the meal as the name also means ‘the whole family can gather all the time in harmony.’

In terms of wine, like all things CNY, we’ll prefer the color red. Many enjoy the opportunity for Rosé sparkling wines as well. Regardless, the opportunity to celebrate togetherness and good wishes for family have our fair Special Administrative Region buzzing with the kind of positive energy that one truly has to visit Hong Kong to appreciate.

One behalf of IWM Hong Kong, dear reader, I wish you Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Rewarding Wines and Fantastic Bubblies on New Year’s

On Vince Lombardi and enjoying good wine

‘I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.’

–       Vince Lombardi, Coach of the Green Bay Packers

In Hong Kong, we work exceptionally hard. Everyone goes full speed all of the time, and we tend to treat ourselves well when we finally stop working. As the year winds down, still at full speed, may I encourage you, dear reader, to reward yourself and in your own style.

Perhaps you’ll surprise yourself by taking a chance on a new Grower Champagne. This year I have enjoyed getting to know the Champagnes of Pierre Peters, and if you haven’t, you must particularly if you enjoy the wonderment that is Salon: pure, mineral elegance from Les Mesnil.

Or maybe you’ll go for a classic, like an older Bordeaux that’s always been a legend.  Surely in HK the 1982 Lafite will make many an appearance. Depending on your New Year’s Eve company, it’s a fine strategy to have a reliable icon on hand to both impress and enjoy as in years past. There’s much to be said for continuity in greatness.

I myself often find myself in very disparate company and enjoy the opportunity keep everyone off-balance. Quality wins in the end and so something like a Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir (old vine from Patagonia, Argentina) will break down even the most passionate Burgundy fans. Or the well-timed injection of Quintarelli’s Alzero, a Cabernet Franc possibly grown on Mars, rocks Cheval Blanc fans to the very core.

No matter your approach, I hope you’ll reward yourself for giving your very best in 2011. Let’s do it again in 2012, and let’s do it even better.

Inside Santa’s Workshop

The wonders of IWM’s magical cellar

Each December, the IWM cellar that sits below our Union Square showroom magically transforms into Santa’s Workshop as our brilliant Cellar Team takes speed and efficiency to higher velocities.  Many days it’s 50 cases in, 50 cases out, while at the same time the guys in the cellar are busy meticulously sorting and readying hundreds of individual gifts for delivery to lucky recipients.  All of this carefully controlled chaos happens within the cool confines our 60,000-bottle wine cellar. It’s fast, furious, and crowded.

In Santa’s Workshop, hands move so fast that David Blaine and Eric Clapton would be impressed. If I take clients down to see the cellar during December, I’m sure to warn them to keep their hands and feet in tight, or they may be accidentally packed in a box of wine and shipped upstate or across the country.

As a rabid football fan, I watch our guys in the cellar move around each other without even making eye contact, and it reminds me of watching a great offensive line that instinctively knows where every member is shifting as they block. In our cellar, however, this happens for twelve straight hours every day.  I’ve found that the only way to get the Cellar Team to slow down is to bring them a box of  Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins, although that gives them just a minor pause and then it’s back to full speed.

Gifting should be an enjoyable and personal experience, just as buying wine should in general.  If we can handle everything in between – from budgeting to delivery – then we’re doing our job for our clients.  Our cellar team is all heart, and I think that’s what drives them to greatness, especially during the holidays.  They are the engine of IWM, our finely-tuned orchestra.  And they know how make a 50-pack of Munchkin Donuts completely disappear.

Gentlemen, I raise a toast to you.

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