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Allegrini 2018
THE INTERVIEW

Jeannie Cho Lee, one of the most influential wine critics, about the success of Italian wine in Asia

The Master of Wine, writer, winner of the Masi award, said: "The future will be native vines, in Asia there is room for all, the offer must be varied"



WineNews interviewed one of the most influential wine critics in Asia, the first Asian Master of Wine and winner of the 38th edition of the Masi Prize, Jeannie Cho Lee. It is key to have ambassadors on markets that know how to narrate the uniqueness of Italian wine, while focusing on the authenticity of what the winemakers do. And proper communication, too, perhaps by putting wine in the broader context of "life style", underlining it is essential to differentiate the offer based on the maturity of the many Asian markets, China in the lead, but not only. This "modus operandi", besides helping Italian wine to grow in Asia, would make up for the fragmentation of the Italian wine offer, is the concept expressed by Jeannie Cho Lee.

Her résumé is extensive, detailed and not easy to summarize. In 2008, she became the first Asian to achieve the coveted title of Master of Wine, and many experts in the wine world consider her one of the most influential wine critics and journalists. To name just one, "Decanter" magazine in 2013 placed her at number 25 among the most powerful people in the wine world. She is an international consultant, as well as author of award-winning books, television presenter, editor and a teacher.
Her passion for wine began many years ago. “My mother cooked and ever since I was a young girl, I loved the food that came to the table accompanied with wine”, Jeannie Cho Lee told WineNews. “The first trips I took to Europe made me aware of the cultural importance of wine on the table and that you never stop learning about it. So, by the time I went to the University in the United States, it had become my passion and my hobby”.
Jeannie was born in Korea, and she studied in the US where she graduated and received a Master's degree from Harvard. She has been based in Hong Kong since 1994. “Of all my work activities, the one I like the best is communication, whether it be teaching, writing books or giving lectures. I try to bring as many people as I can to the wine world”.
Her greatest merit is having succeeded in building a cultural bridge between East and West, and it is thanks to this bridge that the traditions and the social fabric of Asian countries have been able to meet the Italian wine world. Her two very successful books, Asian palate (2009), which explores wine and Asian food pairings, and Mastering Wine for the Asian Palate (2011) which teaches “Asian palates" to master wine also by introducing appropriate descriptors, played an essential role in her project.

“While I was writing my first book, I realized how much the "Asian palate" brought to the relationship with wine and how important a sort of mediation would be. Being the first Asian Master of Wine has been a great responsibility for me and I try to do my best”.
And, this role is easier for Jeannie Cho Lee because she herself is a crossroads of cultures. “There is an aspect of Italian wines that has always fascinated me, which is that they are out of the ordinary, unique and superbly matched with food, and also with many Asian dishes. For instance, all types of roasts would pair very well with Amarone della Valpolicella. The Masi Prize gives me the drive to do even more for Italian wines and Amarone. There is still quite a lot to discover for those who live in Asia”. And there is still a lot to do to better position Italian wines abroad, in volume, but also in price; for example, in the United States, prices are lower than France’s, but lower than New Zealand’s as well.
Jeannie Cho Lee's vision of Italian wine corresponds with the analysis that our national production world has been making for a long time. On the one hand, this is comforting, but on the other, it creates some apprehension because it reveals the inability of a primary economic sector to jointly manage a national strategy adapted to the different company profiles, in terms of size and positioning of quality and price.
“Italian wines are very different from each other, there are numerous wine producers and the offer”, commented Jeannie Cho Lee, “is fragmented. There is no consolidated market entry. I think a kind of consortium uniting the regions could be a good idea. Another way to improve positioning and increase competitiveness would be organizing tastings of Italian wines in the various Asian countries, placing them not only in the context of wine and food, but also lifestyle, fashion and art. I think that Italian wines are still marketed a bit sporadically, unlike the French and Australian ones. In Asia there is room for all types of wines, those that play on volume, those that focus on quality and those that combine the two. The "trick" is in the message, which must be authentic. The company”, Jeannie Cho Lee explained, “must tell why it makes that particular type of wine and not another, about who produce it and the story behind it. If this "wine soul search" is authentic, the market will accept it because it is differentiated. The Chinese market is made up of 1 billion and three hundred million people; therefore, it is inevitable that some hundreds of millions of people are potential wine lovers. China is a difficult market because of the fierce competition and the difficulty in finding the right local partner. In addition to this, it is also necessary to have different strategies based on the profiles of the cities. In the "first level" strategies, where wine consumption is already established, there will be quality wines at higher prices, while instead in the second level ones, in which a double-digit wine boom is underway, it is necessary to enter the market with lower priced wines. However, in Asia there is an entire series of other countries that have high purchasing power, to be considered. One of these is certainly South Korea, but also Vietnam and Thailand, which are growing rapidly, while growth is slowing down now in Hong Kong and Singapore. I think the future of wines will be the "native" wines, that is, those from native vines and territorial expression, which are typical of the Italian wine production. People want something different than what they normally drink. In the United States and Japan, for instance”, explained the Master of Wine, “the public is beginning to desire something different than the usual Cabernet or Chardonnay. It is therefore predictable that as the market matures, different wines will emerge. The challenge for wines from native grapes will be to find experts that know how to present and market them, based on a relationship of trust; that is, overcoming the natural distrust of people who, not knowing these wines, see them as a buying risk”.

While this is the future, the present”, explained Jeannie Cho Lee, “is represented by the great classics of Italian wine. Today in China and the markets in Asia that I know best, like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei and South Korea, Tuscan wines are very well known, thanks to their history and a consolidated export activity. Other Italian regions though are beginning to gain momentum. We are starting to explore northern Italy, particularly, Piedmont, Veneto, and also Southern Italy, both for reds and whites, with special attention to Etna and Aglianico wines. The development depends on the maturity of the market. In Japan, which is a mature market, after knowing and appreciating Tuscan wines, they are now beginning to explore the Veneto and Piedmont regions as well as the Southern Italian Regions. On the other hand, today Tuscan wines definitely have more success on a younger market like Vietnam”.

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