Blend of the best

Updated: 2012-01-20 07:35

By Mark Graham (China Daily)

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 Blend of the best
Fongyee Walker's command of Chinese has been a key to her success in the wine business. Mark Graham / For China Daily

Husband and wife team helps Chinese people understand what wines are about

In-depth knowledge of wine and a total command of spoken, and written, Chinese are proving to be formidable business tools for Fongyee Walker.

The former Cambridge University lecturer, whose mother is originally from the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, has a thriving, Beijing-based operation that specializes in educating people about wine.

Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting, which is run with her husband Edward Ragg, who is also from an academic background, offers wine-training classes, translation services, wine sourcing and restaurant wine-list recommendations.

"Business right now is crazy busy," says Walker, who travels the length and breadth of the company conducting courses and seminars in wine appreciation.

"Our main business is holding wine courses, talking to wineries hoping to enter China, and conducting market research. I do an awful lot of work with translation because in general wine terms are so badly translated.

"I love it. A lot of people I work with are surprised with the translations I come up with because my background is in poetry. My job is to make it sound as good in Chinese as it does in English; the one that used to kill me was reading that syrah was spicy hot, like chili heat. Since when did you have a wine that had chili in it? What people had read was that it had black fruit flavors, with lots of spice - what they meant was cloves and cinnamon, not chili.

"In one city, I did a presentation to 100 consumers. I usually go around to every table and sit with them individually. One of the main problems is that people have got their education from the wineries whose products they are importing and, of course, they receive a very slanted view. They are actually very weak on the basic fundamentals of wine because their education has not been systematic."

Education is a topic Walker knows lots about, having been both a stellar student and a high-powered lecturer. Among the subjects she pursued to an advanced level were Greek, Latin and chemistry, before embarking on the study of classical Chinese.

"I didn't begin Chinese until I was 18, which I find quite remarkable now," says Walker, whose mother Rossana Zhao Xuezhuang emigrated to the United Kingdom where she worked as a nurse, later meeting and marrying Michael Walker, a pharmacologist.

"I thought 'This is ridiculous; this is what I should be learning' and decided I wanted to study it. I later taught classical Chinese at Cambridge for six years."

It was at Cambridge, in eastern England, that Walker first became interested in wine. Ragg, then her boyfriend, introduced her to the Cambridge University Varsity Wine-Tasting Team, where she proved to be something of a star.

"He knew I was a good cook, and knew I had good taste buds, yet I knew nothing about wine, which he thought was a disgrace," Walker says.

"When I joined, the membership had dwindled, but because I had got the top tasting marks I was invited to be captain. I made it more inclusive, wrote a handbook for people, and went out on the streets and asked people if they wanted to learn about wine. I really hate people being snotty about wine. To me wine is like food, something to enjoy for the pure pleasure."

Even though she had a natural aptitude for identifying wines, Walker had no thoughts about a career in the industry until a visit to China activated dormant entrepreneurial genes. Walker figured she had the knowledge of wine, and the language skills; Ragg, a published author and poet, as well as a wine expert, was also keen to venture to China in search of opportunity.

Initially, they landed jobs with Tsinghua University in Beijing, where Ragg still lectures part time, before setting up the wine business.

"It was hard at the beginning; we did no advertising, but it has grown quickly," Walker says. "We made a profit from day one.

"We have two wings. Edward deals with market reports and the writing in English, and a lot of things for trade magazines. I do more of the educational side and work with trade bodies where they will hire me to develop an educational program. I think I am the only person from a background of wine and education because at Cambridge I actually designed a classical Chinese course."

The classes in other cities tend to be larger, one-off gatherings where Walker will conduct an educational seminar to teach people about wine varieties, and wine etiquette.

Importers and distributors say that some of the fastest growth is in smaller cities, where people are also keen to catch up with knowledge and sophistication of their big-city counterparts.

In Beijing, longer-term courses are taught to individuals who are keen to help gain formal qualifications to further their careers in the hospitality industry. The courses are certified by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in Britain and range in price from about 2,000 yuan ($317, 245 euros) to 11,000 yuan; personal tuition and courses tailored to a particular group are also offered.

Among those who signed up was Danielle Liu, who has taken the intermediate and advanced level. Liu, a marketing executive with Wine Republic, an importer which specializes in wine from Australia, found it a useful tool.

"It helps you to identify wine from a specific region and specific village," she says. "Not so many people in China know a lot about wine so if you have some knowledge people regard you as an expert.

"Most customers don't know what kind of wine or style they need, so they need advice. I am in charge of marketing at the Wine Republic, which also includes training staff in hotels, and sometimes for private companies; I introduce new wines to them and give advice on proper wines for specific events."

Walker and Ragg have been astonished at just how quickly the business has taken off since they came to China three years ago. For Walker in particular, it has proved to be an opportunity to put together her two strongest suits - wine and language - into one very marketable business package.

"In England, wine educators and wine pundits are two a penny, so we decided to come to Asia," says Walker, 40.

"I always was keen on Beijing, as I studied classical Chinese at Tsinghua University, and taught there at first while we made inquiries about setting up the business.

"At first we couldn't have a business license because wine consulting didn't officially exist. We also had a huge problem with the word education, because foreign-owned companies cannot become involved in education easily. So we had to make it clear that it was wine training.

"For about a year nobody knew quite what we were doing. We got loads of phone calls asking if we sold wine."

(China Daily 01/20/2012 page20)