Inside the Chengdu wine fair

The Chengdu wine fair isn't just one event, but many. Robert Joseph gets into a taxi and heads out to take a look.

Chengdu wine fair

How do you pronounce ‘Xanadu Hotel’ in Chinese? This wasn’t something I thought I had to know, having taken a picture of the Mandarin text with my phone. Yet here I was, sitting in a taxi with a dead battery and a blank screen. And I needed to get to the Xanadu for a meetingnow, before moving onto two more hotels, the Kempinski and the Shangri La.

I was in Chengdu, one of China’s fastest-rising cities, with 14m inhabitants, annual production of 1.25m cars and the coveted ‘New Tier One’ status that places it just behind Shanghai and Beijing. The home of Szechuan cuisine, it has ambitions to be taken seriously by the wine industry. I had rushed from ProWein in Düsseldorf to Chengdu for the China Food & Drink Fair (CFDF) which has been held here and in Tianjin every year since 1955. But that event was not due to open its doors for another 48 hours. In the interim, like everyone else in the city with a commercial interest in wine, I was heading for the hotels.

Foyer talk

The idea of holding an exhibition in the Kempinski hotel in the three days before the CFDF was the 2009 brainchild of Alan Hung, the head of a Shenzhen-based exhibition organising business called Pacco, which was already selling space at the main event. His reasoning was that imported wine would benefit from being presented in an environment that was not full of lavish stands promoting baijiu spirit, China’s favourite form of alcohol, or Chinese wines, or fakes.

Chinese exhibitors would also appreciate the privacy of the hotel’s many suites and rooms. Conversations begun in the exhibition booth could be continued in comfortable armchairs, and deals signed behind closed doors.

For most Westerners, the notion of an exhibition in a hotel would usually conjure up images of shell scheme stands or tables in ballrooms and function rooms, but Hung’s events are far more ambitious than that. Across the three hotels over 1,500 exhibition stands are squeezed into every conceivable – and some near-inconceivable – corners of their foyers and corridors.

There are no floorplans or catalogues, though an app has now been introduced, and visitors find their way from exhibitor to exhibitor in much the way a shopper might navigate a traditional European food market. And, while there are blocks of stands focused on individual regions, such as Australia and Italy, most of of the exhibitors are local distributors offering ranges from across the globe, so visitors will inevitably come across numerous stands selling Penfolds, for instance.

While it is impossible to say that there are no fakes among the bottles, there are none of the obvious knock-offs seen in the past; in the wake of high profile raids by the Chinese police on sellers of counterfeit wines, it takes courage or foolhardiness to display them. On the other hand, there are some surprising brands: Westerners who are familiar with legitimate Italian wines bearing the Lamborghini logo may be surprised to see ‘Bill Bentley’ wines, adorned with an image more usually associated with luxury cars.

The Kempinski is still the best known of the hotels, but it’s importance is rapidly being overtaken by the Shangri La, where Italy has a large presence and Stevie Kim, CEO of Vinitaly International, runs Vinitaly International Academy training sessions for aspiring Chinese experts.

This year saw the first event at the Xanadu, and there were at least five other hotels running exhibitions, though with a greater focus on baijiu. At a conservative estimate, and bearing in mind that some distributors have stands at more than one hotel, there are probably more than 3,000 individual exhibitors all competing for attention over the three days, in venues that are often at least half an hour’s taxi ride apart, even in moderate traffic.

The official event

For many serious Chinese buyers, the hotels remain the main event. For some, and for big Western brand owners and generic organisations, however, it is the CFDF that matters. Open to anyone prepared to buy a 100 RMB ($15.00) ticket, it attracts over 100,000 visitors, large numbers of whom queue for up to an hour outside huge exhibition halls, to the background of walking beer cans, bottles and dragons and a bewildering cacophony of voices and music.

The apparent chaos is positively tame, however, when compared to what visitors encountered at the previous venue. Inside the modern building, too, the three ‘International’ halls of this huge exhibition bear no resemblance to the unruly bazaar-like muddle of the past. Today, the large Georgian and Australian generic stands, and those of companies like Treasury Wine Estates and Grands Chais de France  would all look perfectly at home at ProWein or Vinexpo. As Australian producer Ross Sheppard of Capel Vale who exhibited at the Shangri La said, the CFDF is not necessarily where the biggest deals are done, but the large stands there offer greater potential for brand building.

Stevie Kim, who has been attending the fair since the launch of the Kempinski event also believes in the buzz of the  hotels, but David Lucas of Wine Australia was delighted with the interest generated by his country’s extensive CFDF stand, which builds on the ambitious showing at ProWine in Shanghai last November.

The only inconvenience of the Chengdu events remains their collision with ProWein.  Making a choice between the events will become increasingly tricky, as the Chinese market continues to grow and as Chinese buyers elect to do more of their tasting and buying at home.

And, of course there’s the question of navigating the city. Luckily for me, I caught sight of a sign for my destination, and was able to point it out to my driver. It’s clear that people like me are going to have to polish our Chinese pronunciation.
Robert Joseph

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