When Napa Headed Way East: The Wine Stash

Despite a change in consumption habits taking place, a consistent theme from The 23rd Parallel‘s first few Q&A sessions was that Hong Kong, as a wine-loving city, still has some way to go before it can say it has collectively embraced vinous diversity.

Two things stick in my mind about wine consumption here. Firstly, according to Michael Palij MW, 77% of all wine sold is French red. Then, according to Watson’s Wine (our largest physical store-front retailer), in their stores in Cantonese-heavy areas, the sales contribution of non-French wine can often come in at less than 10%.

So what hope for everyone else? As you’ll see in future articles, there are clear moves by restaurants, hotels and independent retailers to put interesting and exciting wines from non-traditional areas into our glasses. In an attempt to gauge the degree to which this movement is being received, 10 days ago The 23rd Parallel joined forces with boutique Napa producer The Wine Stash to put together a tasting.

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Started by two brothers, what could be described as a “garagiste” operation by the French, The Wine Stash now has its wares on offer in the some of the city’s leading eating houses, such as Blue Butcher. The aim of the tasting was to challenge people’s preconceived ideas of quality from traditional wine-growing areas, and whether these modern-looking offerings can offer something new.

Without further ado, the scene at Nights on Peel Street before the crowd arrived…

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Getting the notes down early; was a good exercise in rapid-fire tasting!

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Time to kick things off. Starting with a rosé and the whites…

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(1) 2014 Rosé

  • Blend of 90% Pinot Noir from Carneros, 10% Grenache
  • Are we in a bar in Hong Kong, or at Wimbledon in the Summer time? A nose of pure fresh strawberries and cream. Very pleasant and appealing. Refreshing acidity delivered dried candied raspberries and cherries, but its body was the most surprising: with the addition of oak, it had genuine weight, without being unbalanced or awkward

(2) 2013 Sauvignon Blanc

  • 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Calistoga
  • Fairly neutral in character. Some citrus and green apple out of the glass, with a small amount of vanilla from the oak. Refreshing and simple, nothing memorable

(3) 2010 Sauvignon Blanc

  • 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Calistoga
  • Interesting contrast with the above. Much more about it, and very much in keeping with a Bordeaux-style dry white: not an overly expressive nose but excellent on the palate. Mouthfilling with fresh acidity, to go with a stony seam it had satisfying finish of lemon and pear. Good wine

(4) 2010 White Blend

  • Blend of 60% Roussanne, 30% Viognier, 10% Sauvignon Blanc
  • An idiosyncratic wine with a construct based heavily on northern Rhone. Funky and aromatic, plenty of citrus, going with a musky/mineral note. Reasonably pleasant to taste, again citrus but also a touch of toffee popcorn courtesy of the new wood. Lack of balance

(5) 2009 White Blend

  • Blend of 60% Roussanne, 30% Viognier, 10% Picpoul de Pinet
  • Very different to the ’10, with the marginal PdP grape replacing the Sav Blanc. Rich and complex on the nose, first up it was stewed apples and raisins (slightly reminiscent of vintage Champagne), followed by stone fruit and a soil-led funkiness. Really interesting palate; mealy and rich, although fruit not so prevalent, with a long finish

And on to the reds…

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(6) 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 100% Cabernet from Rutherford
  • Good solid varietal character of blackcurrant, cherry and plum, accompanied by milk chocolate and sweet spice from the oak. Simple but really enjoyable, this fruit-forward offering is versatile enough to be paired with most foods, or fine to be drunk on its own

(7) 2012 Red Blend

  • Blend of 75% Syrah, 10% Merlot, 5% each Zinfandel / Viognier / Petit Syrah
  • An interesting, rustic style of wine, with its dark fruit (black cherry/plum), savoury notes and earthy minerality. Quite powerful and one which will definitely benefit from further ageing

(8) Wine Stash Mystery Blend

  • Blend of 2005 Zinfandel, 2006 Syrah, 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 Merlot
  • The crowd favourite, and markedly different to the other reds on offer. Given the age of grapes in the blend, its garnet tinge was immediately apparent when compared to its ruby-coloured stablemates. Lovely mature nose of ripe plum and blackberry, leafiness (probably from the Cab) and nutmeg/cloves. On the palate it was dry, linear and clean with a long fruit-based finish. Excellent wine

(9) 2013 Reserve Red Blend

  • Blend of 85% Merlot from Mt. Veeder, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot
  • You could see why Merlot is behind the wheel of this car: plump red fruit, rich and full-bodied with velvety soft tannins. It had excellent balance on the palate although needs time for the tannins, while enjoyable, to fully integrate with the fruit and alcohol. In 3-5 years it should be in fine fettle

(10) 2012 “Summer” Red Blend

  • Blend of 95% Syrah, 5% Viognier
  • A big ol’ wine at 14.7% abv, it is designed to be given a bit of fridge or ice bucket time, then drunk in the sunshine. Another northern Rhone mimic through the addition of white grape Viognier, first up it had a leathery/savoury nose with only a hint of that trademark Syrah pepperiness. A lack of balance as that alcohol hits you between the eyes, although the black fruit flavour was decent

(Bonus) 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon in Magnum format

  • 100% Cabernet from Rutherford
  • Useful to compare to its younger (and smaller) brother; almost identical aroma and taste profile to the 2012, this one has plenty of life left in it despite its drink-young appeal. Again very enjoyable, that nice blackcurrant and red cherry was accompanied by a milk chocolate note from the wood

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The evening went well, and the crowd enjoyed running through the line-up. But what did everyone think? They loved the Mystery Blend, which to my mind spoke to that hard-wired enjoyment of good vintage Bordeaux. The Rutherford Cab hung on to its coat-tails, with understandable and excellent varietal character: no wonder this is becoming a go-to house pour for a number of restaurants.

The rosé was well received (due to our hot climate?), but what people struggled to accept were the funkier blends on offer: taking the White Blend for example, to put a twist on what is already a not-widely-drunk wine from the Rhône Valley, it could be considered a gamble, not to mention a stretch when it comes to a consumer’s comfort zone.

And the “Summer” red wine, although well constructed, may not be appropriate for our food as well as local palates (remember what José Alba said about Cantonese tolerance to alcohol levels last year).

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My conclusions? In their own right, The Wine Stash produces well-made, solid wines, and there is definitely a space for them in the Hong Kong market. But care needs to be taken as to how they are marketed and placed into our bars and restaurants. The diversity movement is in full (albeit slow) swing now, so pricing will be a huge advantage, but an awareness of the current market is vital too. Taking their Sauvignon Blanc for example, could it really compete with the herbaceous Kiwi style, already very well established here, or the more traditional take from France’s Loire Valley? Unlikely to my mind.

Where it could create a point of difference though is a modern fresh look that highlights their geographical origin. For a sommelier at a restaurant to recommend a HK$100-120 [US$13-15] glass of 100% Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that offers superb early drinking can be a strong message; then, further up the price curve, a blend of older fruit that reflects what’s being done in Napa right now, showcases an exciting philosophy of experimentation that Hongkongers could undoubtedly buy in to.

Let’s hope we see more from the likes of The Wine Stash in years to come.

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Huge thanks to The Wine Stash team for this collaborative effort. You can find out more about their wines via their website. Special mention also to James and the team at Nights, our gracious host.

If you like the article, please share by using the links below…and if you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. I also have a Facebook page you can like here.

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The 23rd Parallel Q&A: Jennie Mack, AWSEC

In the third in a series of interviews for Grape Collective, I talk to Jennie Mack, Founder and Managing Director of the Asia Wine Service & Education Centre in Hong Kong. She has blazed a trail for wine education in Asia for over two decades now, and talks about the city’s early wine scene in the context of her own journey, the differing factors that have led to growth, and what the future holds for the field.

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Jennie, every year at the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair, it’s hard not to be impressed not only by our wine-loving population’s sheer level of interest, but by their desire to learn about it in a deeper, more technical sense – rather than just luxuriate in the event itself. Set the stage for us by winding the clock back 20 years: what was the wine scene like in HK, how did you start out, and what were people’s attitudes towards learning?

In the early 1990s, the wine scene here was actually non-existent: it was limited to the elite. It was the preserve of CEOs and Managing Directors – the wealthy. The general public just didn’t buy wine, let alone want to learn about it. That really was it.

For my first job I worked for the Quebec Government, so because they were consular it meant any wines bought were free of taxes [duty stood at 80% at the time]. I got exposure there, but when I started working for a software firm, my interest really started. The company would entertain important people in Macau and the like – I was invited along to dinners and was given responsibility to understand what we were drinking!

My husband Stephen was originally a sommelier in the UK when we first met, working for the Hong Kong Government so spoke Cantonese. Due to my background I spoke French. As we got to know each other he took me to Bordeaux: I still really knew nothing about wine but could speak the language so I acted as his interpreter. We enjoyed ourselves so much there, along with subsequent trips, we decided to set up a company.

So you fell in love in wine, but what was the genesis of the idea to educate people about it, as opposed to import and distribute, like many others have done subsequently?

Originally there were only a few wine shops in Hong Kong; we would go to private tastings and have fun just casually talking about what we were drinking. As people heard more about our knowledge of the subject, Stephen and I received offers to talk at events, give informal classes, that sort of thing. So we almost fell into it. Things started very slowly though; there was no grand plan to become some huge wine school!

Once the business had been set up, the clincher if you like was WSET. Right at the start of the 2000s, there was only one approved course educator in the city. He was retiring and WSET asked us if we would like to be involved. We jumped at the chance.

What were the main catalysts for the growth of your business then?

Three factors really. Firstly, WSET was obviously a huge deal for us: we suddenly had an internationally-recognised accreditation as our calling card, and it gave us a great advantage as the popularity of wine grew. The business was also repeat in nature, due to people’s desire to go from one level to the next.

Strangely, the SARS outbreak in 2002 helped us. We saw a real increase in the amount of people enrolling for courses during the crisis. It is hard to put my finger on exactly why, but it seemed to be happening because people quite literally had to stay off the streets: they needed things to do so wine education was one of them!

But honestly, the biggest help was the Government’s decision to reduce, and then remove, duty on wine [it went from 80% to 40 to zero in the 2000s, meaning Hong Kong is the only duty-free wine domicile among major economies globally]. By 2008, when it went to zero, it suddenly became so much cheaper for the general population to purchase wine, so it was no surprise when the scene just exploded. The HKIWSF you mentioned at the start – the format you know today was born that year for example.

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Everything happens for a reason! As you know our city has seen a huge rise in the quality and quantity of wine-focused restaurants and bars this past 5-7 years; as fashions have changed, how has that manifested itself in how AWSEC has educated industry professionals?

As consumers have become more knowledgable, the F&B industry has had to keep up. In terms of what’s popular, after a slow start I think people are generally moving away from Bordeaux and Burgundy now, so as they explore the New World more, it feels like there is a good mix between the high-end (which will probably always be there due to a strong sense of brand awareness) and the everyday.

This shift in fashion, especially from Hong Kong’s younger generation of drinkers, has provided impetus to the education movement, most notably via WSET which of course has such a wide-ranging syllabus. The restaurants and bars know they have to train their staff to stay relevant.

Right. And on the other side of the same coin, to what degree are you seeing demand for courses from people that do not work in traditional F&B roles?

There is huge demand! In fact, the amount of people we teach that are not directly in the industry are in the majority. When we first started, I would say around 80% of people who enrolled in our courses were normal, everyday consumers. Nowadays, F&B industry participation is much higher than 20%, but the private consumers still take up 60-70%. It’s great to see.

How do you think wine education will evolve in the next decade for you?

For starters, we are going to expand our offering to augment the core WSET courses. WSET is fantastically popular, and we love teaching it, but the courses are very broad in scope. We already do dedicated Burgundy/Bordeaux and Australia classes, but more tailored supplementary courses for areas such as Chile and New Zealand – also Saké – will provide great opportunities for people going forward.drogerspic_wsetsign

We’ll also continue our heavy involvement with company-specific education. As the lifestyle scene continues to grow in Hong Kong, we are getting more and more requests to do bespoke training for a specific group of people. It’s an exciting area.

Travel-based education will be another offering for the serious wine enthusiast. For example we have done professional immersion programs in places like Champagne and Alsace. Things like this will be a great alternative for people who don’t necessarily want to climb the WSET ladder, instead developing a specialism, and so on.

Finally our push into the mainland: we have opened offices in Guangzhou and Shanghai in recent times, and now offer a full suite of courses. We hope this will really drive growth for us, because although wine in China is popular now, we really are only scratching the surface.

Most of all though, we just want to continue to educate people and stir their passion for wine. An anecdote my educators like to share – perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek – is that Asia has more Masters of Wine in the pipeline than any other part of the world. If we can help start even more people off on their journey, that’s good enough for us.

How about yourself though? Given you hold a WSET Diploma, wouldn’t you like to go on to qualify as an MW?

I’d love to, but I don’t think I have the time!

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This interview was originally published on Grape Collective, the current front cover of which can be seen below.

You can find out more about AWSEC, and the courses they offer, via their website.

If you like this article, please share by using the links below…and if you’re a fan of Twitter, you can follow me here. We also now have a Facebook page here.

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The 23rd Parallel is now on Facebook!

A happy Sunday to all, and indeed a wonderfully sunny one here in Hong Kong. The scene in Stanley was a mighty pleasant one earlier today…

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Just a quick note over our late-weekend glass of red: The 23rd Parallel now has its own Facebook page. Just go to the following:

https://www.facebook.com/the23rdparallel

Please click on the Like button to receive all the latest posts (and more) direct to your feed. Some cool interviews and articles to come over the next few weeks.

If you’re also on Twitter and want to Follow, a reminder that you can also keep up-to-date with everything right here:

https://twitter.com/the23rdparallel

Enjoy the rest of your weekend…and Kung Hei Fat Choi!

The 23rd Parallel Q&A: Michael Palij MW, Vino Veritas

Achieving Master of Wine status at the age of 29, UK-based Canadian Michael Palij is the figurehead of Vino Veritas, a boutique importer and distributor of Italian wines in Hong Kong. A leading authority on the country, he writes the Italian section of WSET’s core textbooks. While on a whistle-stop tour of the city in which he used to live, he took a breather to talk to me about cultural shifts, Prada and Gucci, electrical analogies…and why he’s just one of the guys.

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Michael, talk to us about the wine scene in Hong Kong from your perspective: the brand awareness argument is fairly well understood now, and although we hear a lot about the wine-buying population exploring new areas outside classical France, in your experience at what speed is this actually playing out?

To sum it up in one word: slowly. The statistic that sticks in my mind is that 77% of all wine sales here are still French, and red. Of the remaining 23% up for grabs, Italy is trying to grab the proverbial 1% of the 1% at the moment. So that tells you everything you need to know!

If you look at where Hong Kong is, in a historical sense there are interesting parallels with other markets: if you take the UK in 1995 for example, 10% of all wine sales were Italian, and of that, 9.9% came from Lambrusco. Why am I telling you this? Because in any country, the wine-consuming population often portrays itself as a collection of sophisticates, but the reality is something very different when you look at actual sales numbers.

The city is going through exactly the same process right now. We’ve been through a phase where, fuelled by mainland China I have to say, a large demographic who suddenly had access to disposable income were guided by Robert Parker or whomever; having looked at a wine that had been rated with 100 points, they would say “I have the money, so I’ll buy the Mouton”. You can’t really blame people for that.

Per capita sales in Hong Kong are around 7.5 litres of wine per year. As a comparison Italy is around 10 times that, the UK 3-4 times bigger. But here’s the rub: the difference between what Hong Kong buys, and what Hong Kong consumes, is enormous. They only drink around 2.5 litres each per year, so where does that extra 5 litres go? It either gets exported, or stored ad infinitum at Crown Cellars [one of the city’s most renowned wine storage facilities] or wherever.

What you don’t see yet is a culture of drinking – and I mean generally, not just wine – by the adult population here; unlike in Europe and the States, where it is socially acceptable to say have a bottle of wine with lunch, people drink tea. For the most part, wine is still about “face”: at most demographic points it’s about gifting, it’s about being seen to be carrying out a ritual which is associated with sophistication.

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Some interesting perspectives there, not to mention numbers. In the context of Vino Veritas being a niche provider of artisanal Italian wines though, how are things playing out for you given what you’ve just said?

My view is that once people get a bit of social confidence, they don’t have to wear Prada or Gucci everyday, if you know what I mean. You can get to a point where they open wine just because it tastes damn good.

This will help us, and that is where Hong Kong is going to get to: now I don’t know if it’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day, but that doesn’t matter to me. We’re here for the long term, by being focused on education, changing mindsets, brand building – all the things that will establish us as a leader in Italian wine.

Specific to Italy then, as people shift out of France, they look to Piedmont, they go to Tuscany; to what degree will that in turn shift into a case of, “well I know Piedmont, how about trying something different to a Barolo; how about we go across to the Marche, up to Veneto, or down south to Campania to try a big Taurasi?” Do you think we are years away from that, or are the seeds firmly sown already?

Well, I’m not sure the pathway is quite like that. I don’t think Hongkongers will instantly move away from France – to start they’ll move away from Bordeaux and Burgundy. They might move to another part of France, or they’ll try Bordeaux Supérieur instead of Classed Growth.

But here’s where it gets interesting. At exactly the same point we could short circuit that change and say to people, “instead of trying that different Bordeaux, how about giving our Taurasi a go?” I’m not entirely sure we’re quite yet at the point where Italy lives in a box called “experimentation” though; at the moment it still lives in a box called “not France”. We’ll get there though.

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So have there been any notable short circuits up to this point?

When we first started Vino Veritas, the first thing everyone would say to us was, “don’t try to sell white wine. People don’t drink it in Hong Kong”. In our first year of operation though, our biggest-selling wine was a white wine from a grape called Timorasso. By the look on your face [a blank one], I’m pretty sure that’s a varietal you’ve never heard of [I hadn’t].

So how did that happen? It was one of those rare occasions where I got up on my hind legs and said, “you really need to try this, here’s the story, I genuinely think you’ll like it”. People tasted the wine, listened to the story, and it all made sense to them. People are open to experimenting, but they are not open to being made a fool of – so you need to get this stuff right. It can work.

You make an interesting point on recommending wine: seeing as MWs are so thin on the ground in Asia, to what degree can you bring that influence, that caché, to bear on a commercial enterprise? Because of your position, how do you use it in the right way for the betterment of your business, and in order to promote Italian wines?

ferraritrentoI honestly don’t think I’ve ever stood up and spoken solely about Vino Veritas. I’m not wired like that. If you – anyone – are getting up and talking about wine, it ultimately helps our business. The more MWs we get in Hong Kong, the more people that talk about wine through events, the better. Education, and the respect people have for teachers, is huge here, so wine can and will really take advantage of this.

Aligned with the social and thematic changes we’ve talked about, I’m sure Italian wine will go from strength to strength in the coming years. It doesn’t need me to get on my soapbox to achieve that.

On a lighter note, you must find it interesting when you go to events in Hong Kong, witnessing people’s reactions when they find out your background. Presumably they’re falling at your feet because of your two little letters!

Honestly, the deification of MWs is very silly, and it’s definitely worse in this part of the world. I know there aren’t many of us who have achieved the qualification, but there are so many people who know a heck of a lot about wine, without having the letters after their name. I just happened to have a decent palate from a young age, and have managed to make a living out of promoting wine in a positive way. I’m still a normal bloke, who likes going out with his mates and having a few beers!

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This article was originally published on Grape Collective, the latest cover of which is shown below. You can find out more about Vino Veritas via their website.

If you like this article, please share by using the links after the image…and if you’re a fan of the Twittersphere, you can follow me here. Thanks!

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