China’s top influencers

When Chinese consumers want to know more about wine, they don’t turn to magazines. Debra Meiburg MW introduces the country’s true influencers.

Nolant, Tsang
Nolant, Tsang

In China’s populous cities, small voices are making a big impact. Where in many established wine countries the mass media has the power to move the market, China is a different story. Wine enthusiasts rely on their peers and social media influencers for wine information and recommendations, accessed by smartphone on popular social media platforms. 

The dominance of social media has coincided with another phenomenon: the rise of China’s real consumer – where those who buy the wine are the ones who drink it, as opposed to gifting. 
China has the world’s highest number of smartphones and mobile internet users, who spend in excess of three hours on their devices every day. Social media platforms such as WeChat, Sina Weibo, livestream video site Douyin, and Zhihu, a question and answer forum, are powerful communication tools on which to share wine wisdom and opinion without the usual constraints (or thoughtful curation) of traditional media. 

China’s social media influencers reside in two camps. Key opinion leaders, or KOLs, comprise the country’s famous actors, singers and TV personalities, as well as web celebrities and bloggers. This group wields incredible power in China’s massive online retail market, especially in fashion, cosmetics and luxury goods. They command commissions as payment for their endorsements: the higher the number of clicks per post, the more they get paid. The term KOL has even become a job title in its own right and spawned an industry of agents who train and groom influencers in exchange for a share of their endorsement proceeds. While still strong, the influence of KOLs is waning as savvy consumers realise their heroes are paid to endorse products. 

Hong Kong-based consultant Sarah Heller MW says China’s online wine community is one segment where consumers are clued-up on KOLs. The gap in-between is where micro influencers are on the rise. Micro influencers are also bloggers and livestream video stars, but their voices carry more weight because they offer genuine opinions from trusted personalities. “There is something to be said for micro influencers,” Heller told an audience at Vinexpo Hong Kong 2018, noting that Millennial consumers are more reliant on their peers’ experiences than blindly following a KOL. 

Where traditional media has historically been hampered by censorship, China’s social media stars are opening dialogue about wine. Their often candid, entertaining, bite-sized wine opinions are breaking down barriers and creating communities of wine lovers. 

Wang Shenghan

Better known by her internet nickname Drunken Mother Goose, Wang Shenghan is the founder of Lady Penguin, a social media channel and online wine retailer. The Beijing native rose to fame via Sina Weibo – a microblogging website with more than 430m monthly active users – where her candid wine review videos are popular with well-educated urban drinkers. She now has millions of fans and operates a successful wine club. A graduate of Brown University and Le Cordon Bleu, Wang’s influence has grown to the point where she now has a team of people to produce her attention-grabbing online Lady Penguin shows. The company has also branched into wine tastings and events, publishing wine guides, and operating a wine bar in Beijing’s Sanlitun district. 

Fongyee Walker MW

Education is an influential segment of China’s wine scene, with The Wine & Spirit Trust (WSET) reporting mainland China as its major source of growth last academic year. Fongyee Walker, China’s first Master of Wine, is arguably Beijing’s most skilled wine educator. Since obtaining the prestigious MW qualification, Walker – who also holds a Cambridge PhD in Classical Chinese – has committed to advancing wine knowledge in China through her consultancy Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting. She co-founded the consultancy in 2007 with husband Edward Ragg. Dragon Phoenix was the first school in China to teach WSET Level 4 in a classroom setting. Walker, through her teaching, media articles, commentary and social media accounts, is enhancing professionalism in the industry and promoting wine in China as an everyday pleasure rather than a luxury.

Terry Xu

Shanghai-based wine writer, educator and presenter Terry Xu has thousands of followers on WeChat and Weibo and is a regular columnist for Decanter’s China website. Xu – another in-demand educator – trained in China’s popular import market of Bordeaux and carries trainer certifications from six other wine regions and countries. The WSET diploma holder co-founded wine consultancy and marketing agency Aroma Republic and is passionate about promoting wine culture. Xu is positive about social media’s impact on wine culture, but believes the spread of good content should extend beyond wine alone. “The Chinese are becoming more connected via social media than any other country in the world,” Xu said in an interview with WSET Global. “I believe we are now entering a second era of wine promotion on social media, where you find not only wine professionals on social media channels, but also the voices and views of many wine lovers and enthusiasts.” 

Chufei Churan Twins

Web celebrities the Chufei Churan Twins have made the leap to promoting wine as a lifestyle and were recently engaged by Wine Australia for a journey to visit Australia’s wineries and tourist areas, all of which will be livestreamed to millions of followers (mainly females) on Tmall, Alibaba’s retail platform. The social media stars gained legions of fans by livestreaming their overseas holidays, high-end fashion and fine dining dinners to young, upper middle-class Chinese women who also happen to be discovering and buying wine online. 

Kent Tsang

Journalist, judge and marketer Kent Tsang is editor-in-chief of The Black Wine Guide, the brainchild of wine critic and sommelier Jean-Marc Nolant. She was previously Chinese edition manager of Le Pan magazine and deputy editor and managing editor of WINE Magazine. Her new project publishes wine reviews and ratings of high-end wines for the luxury market in the tradition of Bettane+Desseauve’s Guide de Vins and La Revue du Vin de France, which has been published in Mandarin since 2011. To promote their tasting events, Tsang’s team has harnessed the power of social media, gaining 130,000 followers (natural) in just three days after it screened videos on Douyin, also known as TikTok, a platform that hosts entertaining, eye-catching user-generated photos and livestream videos.

Oliver Zhou’s managing director, Oliver Zhou, was the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition’s 2016 Young Communicator of the Year. He leads a team of trained wine writers and contributors to deliver popular, professional content. With official accounts on WeChat and Weibo, Vinehoo has produced innovative wine communications since 2008 and now has more than 300,000 monthly viewers. Zhou led the development of Vinehoo’s first online education program, first three-minute 2D animation video series and an integrated social media management program in mainland China. He also serves as the managing director of Vinehoo, which operates online retail store WineYun, and is a food and wine writer and translator.

Other notable opinion leaders

Wine in University, an association for tertiary students, uses WeChat’s built-in audio function to connect with famous local and international wine experts, such as winemaker Judy Chan, president of Grace Vineyard, who hosted a chat from her home, and associate professor of wine tasting and oenology at Beijing Agricultural College, Li Demei. Li is a wine consultant, teacher and winemaker who serves as a professor at the Ecole Superieur d’Agriculture in France.

Ian Dai, CEO of You Meng, a marketing and e-commerce consultancy, said WeChat accounts and social media are flourishing in China due to their freedom from restrictions faced by local traditional and digital media. He asserts that traditional wine writers – both online and offline – have less influence on the mass market in China than they do overseas. Industry professionals, however, still seek inspiration from magazines and other online and offline media sources. “I look to international media for inspiration,” said Dai. 

Communication agency Sopexa, wine agency Meiburg Wine Media, and PRC-based country representatives – such as New Zealand Winegrowers’ Natalie Potts and Wine Australia’s David Lucas – influence buyers through their educational programs,and other activities. Dedicated wine and alcohol retailers also drive the market, including the chain 1919, which opened in China in 2017, online retailer, and by Vinehoo.

Yet the biggest influence on direct wine purchases is wine recommendations by friends and trusted peers on social media. In that environment, China’s big brand-driven, predominantly French wine scene is becoming more open to interesting new wine trends.  

Top sommeliers drive China’s on-trade trends

Social media accounts might control the airwaves when it comes to China’s emerging mass market, but it is professionals who set the wine scene in the country’s fine dining restaurants.
Christian Zhang, chief sommelier at Noahs Yacht Club on the Bund in Shanghai, has amassed plenty of awards that recognise his excellence as a sommelier of South African, Australian, Canadian and French wines. He has helped top hotel brands launch in China, including JW Marriott, Hangzhou.

Tansy Zhao, chief sommelier at Noble Spirits Shanghai, is certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. He tried Penfolds Grange “by accident” and was inspired to discover more about wine. Zhao’s natural talent landed him a job as junior sommelier at Waldorf Astoria Shanghai and, through his passion and expertise, he has won multiple sommelier competitions. 

Lu Yang, corporate wine director for Shangri-La Hotels, became China’s first Master Sommelier in August 2017. A graduate of Viticulture and Winemaking from Niagara College in Canada, Lu writes, judges and speaks regularly about wine and has grown to be regarded not only as one of Greater China’s most important and influential sommeliers, but also as one of its finest wine educators. reports that Lu has won all three major sommelier competitions in China.

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