Suffering sommeliers

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2012-6-26 20:25:02


Photo: CFP
Photo: CFP

According to data released earlier this year by International Wine and Spirit Research (IWSR), a leading provider of data on wines and spirits, China consumed about 1.9 billion bottles of wines in 2011, exceeding the UK and becoming the fifth largest consumer of wine in the world, following the US, Italy, France and Germany.

The number continues to rise. Robert Beynat, CEO of IWSR told that "China will be the fastest growing market over the next four years," predicting a 54.3 percent increase between 2011 and 2015.

But despite China's growing wine consumption, the salary and reputation of domestic winemakers lag behind Europe and the US, as domestic sommeliers and winemakers are often regarded as subordinate technicians.

Winemakers whine 

"When I was an intern at a wine factory, I felt like I was being treated like a manual worker," Wan Li, a graduate student at Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University (A&F), told the Global Times.

Because many businessmen approach wine as merchandise, all they look for is the return of profits, said Li Weijie, a wine dealer in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

Therefore, they care more about advertisement and promotion, rather than the winemakers.

"The majority of wine drinkers in China do not have the ability to judge wine, due to China's short history with the craft," said Lu Jiang, a wine connoisseur. "Many customers choose a wine by its brand rather than the quality, style, or maker."

"At the moment, the majority of wine companies do not realize what a good winemaker brings," added 26-year-old Wan.

The income of winemakers is affected by this domestic ambivalence. According to Wang Jianjun, chief engineer at Beijing Rainsun Wine Estate, for new winemakers, their monthly salary is around 2,000 yuan ($314), and after they are more experienced, with the passing of 10 years, they receive a monthly salary of 5,000 to 10,000 yuan.

"This is too low for a winemaker, who provides the soul of a wine," commented Zhong Xiang, a winemaker who now works in France.

Like Zhong, winemakers take charge of a number of process like choosing the wine materials and facilities, making starters, designing processes and creating new wines. In France, a winemaker plays a more important role than the wine factory owner.

"Changing the owner will not influence the price of a wine, changing the winemaker will," Zhang explained with an example, adding that winemaking is a respectable and well-paid profession in Europe and the US. "A young winemaker earns about 30,000 euros ($37,494) a year in France, and a chief inspector can receive as much 120,000 euros. The US has the highest annual salary, averaging $100,000 to $120,000."

Poor pay

The first enology major in China was offered in 1985. Before, the craft was often taught by senior technicians in the factory, with new workers learning on the job.

In 1994, the first enology college was established. Both were at A&F. At the moment, enology is still not a popular major in many first and second tier universities, and the number of graduates is relatively small.

"At our college, we have about 110 undergraduate students a year and 20 graduate students," Wan said.

However, this does not prevent the competition from being fierce, as  "this position does not have a high entrance standard [in China]," Wang said. "Those without a degree can be winemakers, as employers care more about experience."

School years do not offer practical experiences. "During my undergraduate years, we only had four chances to participate in winemaking, where we strictly followed textbooks," Wan said. "But in fact to make wine, we need to adjust to local conditions." 

Only one third of students in Wan's university become winemakers after graduation. 

Taste the difference

"In France, wine making is regarded as an industry. In China it belongs to the agriculture sector," Zhong told the Global Times. 

While most European wine companies have their own grapes plantations and can take full charge, wine companies in China purchase grapes from farmers.

"Original material is crucial in winemaking, [but] farmers care mostly for plants that are the most economically rewarding," said Zhang Nan, vice general manager at a Shandong-based wine company. Sometimes there is a shortage of grapes because farmers grow other plants or the quality of grapes is low.

"Without quality material, it is impossible for any winemaker to make good wine," said Zhang.

"I have been to the grape plantation of CITIC Guoan [in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region]. They grow grapes in rough ways and use too much pesticide. They are largely driven by profits. With this process, winemakers can only use conservative methods rather than think of new ways to enhance tastes," Wan said. 

Despite these difficulties, many insiders are positive about the future of the domestic wine industry.

"The wine industry [in China] is developing, and there are a number of ambitious winemakers who can tolerate and wait out the inconsistencies," said Li Xinbang, Vicard Group's Chief Representative in China. "In wine cellars, there will be quality domestic wines under production."

He added that some Chinese wineries currently have their own plantations, providing solutions to quality control. Many Chinese winemakers now return instead of staying overseas after their studies abroad, bringing advanced technology and concepts back.

"China has room to develop," Zhong said. "It is slow for a winemaker to grow [in France], but they can quickly be assigned to big programs when they return."


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