Tips for Welcoming Chinese Winery Visitors

Experts offer insights on Chinese culture and customs that could help make a sale

by Paul Franson
scandanavia u.s. wine sales
Experts on the new Chinese wine consumers included (from left) Charlie Gu, John Stallcup, Adam Ivor and Toddy Isham Arnold.

St. Helena, Calif.—Napa and Sonoma county wineries are seeing more and more visitors from China, and the Concierge Alliance of Napa Valley and Sonoma (CANVAS) held a seminar on Aug. 30 to help members in the wine business best welcome them.

The panel included four experts. Charlie Gu, director of China Luxury Advisors, spoke of trends and opportunities. John Stallcup of Stallcup and Associates Brand Work described the day-to-day realities of welcoming Chinese visitors to tasting rooms and Adam Ivor of Gliding Eagle described both his company’s ability to ship directly to Chinese consumers and dealing with Chinese social media. Toddy Isham Arnold, the business and travel manager at the Meritage Resort & Spa in Napa and Meritage Collection described how hotels can best serve Chinese visitors.

An important market
Gu began with a discussion of China’s fast-growing economic power and the impact on its population and outbound tourism. The Chinese GNP grew from $2.7 trillion in 2006 to $10.3 trillion in 2014 according to the World Bank. The middle and upper middle class are growing rapidly, and already far outnumber the poor.

That means that Chinese are traveling and the United States and especially California are big beneficiaries.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Forecast of International Travelers to the United States, Chinese arrivals are expected to grow by 2.8 million visitors by 2020, a 129% increase. In 2015, Chinese visitors spent $27 billion in the U.S., up 12%.

One million Chinese visited California in 2014, a 21.6% increase over 2013, making China the largest source of overseas visitors. The Chinese visitors spent more than $2.5 billion in the state in 2014. Gu said a big reason for the impact was that in 2014, China and the U.S. signed an agreement to issue 10-year tourist and business visas to each other’s citizens.

No more big tour buses
Meanwhile, the habits and preferences of Chinese visitors while on tour are changing. In the past, they tended to come in large groups and visit familiar places, notably Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco. Now high-end groups are shrinking in size and seeking luxury experiences, Gu said.

In addition, half of Chinese tourists are now millennials, whom account for 75% of China’s individual tourism market and 73% of its luxury market. Two thirds of this group belong to the high-income bracket. For many affluent Chinese, the definition of luxury is shifting from conspicuous spending to experiential luxury and that includes visiting wineries, Gu said.

John Stallcup said 80,000 Chinese tourists visited Napa Valley in 2014 and in 2016 that number is approaching 200,000. Chinese visitors now outnumber all other foreign visitors except Canadians.

He said Chinese visitors primarily visit a few well-known wineries as part of a tour package, but independent travelers are approaching 40% of visitors, and visit far more destinations, both planned and unplanned.

Their destinations are heavily influenced by the Drops of God graphic novel or manga series that also includes books and TV episodes. More than 300 million Asians (Japanese, Korean, and Chinese) employ the manga series as their wine bible.

The series features 13 Napa wineries — Etude Wines, Hess Collection Winery, Kongsgaard Wine, Dominus Estate, Harlan Estate, Opus One, Robert Mondavi Winery, Heitz Wine Cellars, Beringer Vineyards, Clos Pegase, Caymus Vineyards, Screaming Eagle Winery and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars — and two Sonoma wineries, Marcassin Wine Co. and Kistler Vineyards.

Stallcup said the high-net-worth Chinese visitor expects a VIP experience with individual attention, exclusive discounts and personal calls for new releases or events. Chinese repeat visitors travel abroad five to eight times a year, mostly on business trips. He added the Chinese credit and debit card of choice is Union Pay, so if you can’t take a Union Pay PIN debit card they can’t buy your wines.

Easy-to-use free WiFi is also vital, as roaming charges are very high.

Dealing with visitors
Stallcup outlined five basic Chinese cultural principals:

• National pride: The unprecedented rise of the new China in the past 30 years has imbued nearly all Chinese with a great deal of national pride and patriotism. Don’t bring up old stereotypes of third world China, and don’t mention Tibet or Taiwan.

Guanxi: A social concept based on the exchange of favors. Guanxi are personalized networks of influence. Personal relationships are more important than laws and written agreements. Western business culture is transaction-based. Chinese business culture is relationship-based. To develop good guanxi, send hand-written follow-up cards to Chinese visitors and travel industry people you meet. Keep in contact by email or mobile messages. Provide small thank-you gifts like corkscrews or lapel pin to help them remember you and your brand.

• Hierarchy. Know who the “boss” is. Remember that greetings are formal for Chinese and to greet the person with the highest rank first. That person is almost always older and often male. Acknowledge the oldest person in the group with a very slight bow or nod. Note that the most outspoken person or the one who speaks the best English may not be the “boss.” Address the person by their honorific title and their family name if you know it.

• Face or “miàn zi.” A combination of social standing, reputation, influence, dignity and honor. The worst thing that can happen to a Chinese traveler is to lose face. It is fairly easy to unintentionally slight a tasting room visitor and cause them to lose face. When communicating, avoid saying no. Don’t interrupt anyone and do not criticize anyone in front of others.

• Time. Chinese tourists try to do as much as they can with the time they have. They like to keep busy and keep moving. Have easy to identify places for “selfies” and posed photos. Props like fountains, artwork and winery signage are helpful.

Tasting room tactics
Have a staff member who can speak Mandarin if possible, and translate all tasting room literature into simplified Chinese. Stallcup says that there is always someone in the group of Chinese who can read and understand English. Most Chinese travelers can read and understand clearly spoken English, but they are unable or uncomfortable speaking English.

Stallcup also advised that almost everything such as tasting menus, drinks, gifts or money, should be handed to Chinese people with two hands.

When giving gifts, be sure to give an even number or quantity. Any souvenir, food, wine or spirits or local products are popular but do not open a gift when it is presented to you. Gifts are opened privately.

He added another warning that “if you remind a visitor from China of the cost of the tasting after they have seen the tasting room menu it can be construed as a slight.”

Chinese preferences and descriptors
Wines used for status gifts are red, expensive and famous limited-production wines. Stallcup said such wines are seldom consumed for pleasure.

The wine Chinese actually drink is primarily inexpensive Great Wall red, fruit-forward, with light tannins or sweet. Stallcup says, “This is driven by the wide prevalence of ‘supertasters’ among the Chinese population.”

Chinese wine consumers use generic descriptors more often than specific descriptors. The most commonly selected generic descriptors are smooth, fruity, sweet, mellow and lengthy aftertaste.

Many European or Western flavor descriptors don’t make sense to Chinese. The most prevalent specific descriptors perceived in a wine are related to commonly eaten fruits in China like citrus fruits such as pomelo and lime for white and sparkling wines, red fruits such as yangmei and dried Chinese hawthorns for red wines and jackfruit and longan for dessert wines.

These are as familiar to them as black cherry and raspberry are to most California winery staff members.


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