At the world’s largest gathering of wine professionals—Bordeaux’s Vinexpo that’s taking place this week—all eyes are on Jeannie Cho Lee.
She’s Asia’s first Master of Wine, an academic honor given by the UK’s Institute of Masters of Wine that sets her apart as a member of an elite group of the world’s 377 accredited wine professionals. She’s a critic, author, judge, wine celebrity, and more.
Lee is a visionary in this industry and with more that 100 Bordeaux châteaux in Chinese hands, she has seized the moment to launch a glossy and ambitious new wine magazine, Le Pan, with a dedicated Chinese edition that will pander to the seemingly unquenchable Chinese thirst for French wine. It went on sale on June 15th in Asia, with a cover price of HK$99.
The Chinese, who started buying Bordeaux vineyards in 2010, are now the principal export market for the French region’s wines. China bought 240 million euros of Bordeaux last year and consumed 1.865 billion bottles.
So when the petite and immaculately dressed Lee dropped into Paris on June 10 en route to Vinexpo, where 18,000 Asian buyers are among the 50,000 trade visitors, she described her long-held desire to share a richer wine experience with her Chinese audience.
Speaking to a small group of French wine connoisseurs who previewed the large-format 200-page English edition of the magazine, she told them, “French wine magazines are very precise; I want to build a bridge between wine and the world of fine living.”
Since Chinese vineyard owners tend to export 80 percent of the wine they produce in France to the home market, Lee believes it’s time for a magazine that is dedicated to “this aspirational audience for whom this product is a symbol of lifestyle.”
“In China, our lives are no longer about struggles, but enjoyment. The Chinese want to learn and through Le Pan we will share the experience, the learning and enjoyment of wine.”
Lee described Le Pan as a universe of eight separate products. It includes print editions in two languages, a bilingual website which is already populated with 12,000 wine reviews, a mobile app, and supportive social media.
Following the launch event for 500 guests at Vinexpo that took place on June 15th, Lee will introduce the magazine to the UK, where she has a private box at Royal Ascot for two days of the annual five-day racing carnival, and then to wine industry executives in Geneva.
Even more significant will be the autumn launch in China, with events in 12 cities including Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu with 100 to 150 guests at each occasion. The Chinese edition of Le Pan mirrors the English-language magazine, but with added content on wine and lifestyle in Greater China. It will be distributed in 22 cities across China, at newsstands, wine shops, business and first-class airport lounges, and leading hotels.
Lee, who describes herself as “a dreamer who wanted to create the world’s finest wine lifestyle magazine” originally took her vision to Pan Sutong, chairman and CEO of Goldin Group. His interests span electronics, property, polo and wine. Goldin owns Sloan Estate in the Napa Valley and the Bordeaux wineries Château Le Bon Pasteur, Château Rolland-Mailletand, and Château Bertineau St-Vincent.
With Goldin’s support, Hong Kong-based Lee spent two years refining her magazine. “We carried out extensive focus groups, I rejected many stories and pictures, but ultimately I built an impressive team.
“Wine is a world of craftsmanship. I wanted to bring the best writers,”—she has six Masters of Wine on staff—“illustrators, and photographers together to create a magazine that is about artisanal craftsmanship,” she said. “We’ll cover much more than wine. Life without wine is nothing so we will also convey the art of living, through features on subjects such as jewelry, design, watches, travel, and fashion.”
The first issue indicates Lee’s impeccable connections. The cover story takes readers inside the world of Christian and Cherise Moueix—she’s a Chinese-American who married one of the most influential wine personalities in Bordeaux, the maker of the famed Pétrus.
It includes 48 pages on the Bordeaux wine region, a fashion shoot at Haute Brion, and Elin McCoy’s essay that asks the provocative question of whether Robert Parker is still is the world’s most influential voice in wine. In an interview with Jean-Claude Biver, the head of LVMH’s watch division, he discusses the future of the watch industry.
Lee believes wine notes can detract from the aesthetics of a magazine like Le Pan and she packs 300 reviews into a small format, pullout titled the LP Guide, which will eventually extend to an app sharing Le Pan’s database of wine reviews. Each issue will focus on one wine region and will carry the pull-out wine guide.
Of course, the magazine’s business potential is key. Despite China now having the second-largest vineyard area worldwide, much of the fruit is cultivated for the table or to be dried. France still produces 46.7 hectoliters of wine annually, the highest in any country worldwide. Italy comes in second, and Spain third.
And even though Chinese buyers own a mere 1.5 percent of the 7,000 vineyards in the Bordeaux area, as sales come under pressure, many owners are looking to introduce industrial efficiency and economies of scale.
Along with a 17 percent decline by value and 9 percent by volume in exports of Bordeaux to China in 2014, which may partly represent the Chinese government’s official crackdown on conspicuous consumption, other threats include competition from New World producers in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
However, there is no lack of Chinese interest in French vineyards, when a bottle can sell for up to 10 times its France sale price in China.
When the symbolic “100th Chinese château” purchase was made in January of this year by packaging millionaire James Zhou, he became the owner of the 18th-century Château Renon with its extensive gardens, parkland, and 20 acres of vineyards. The purchase was typical of Chinese interests, where the vineyard is only part of a desire for a beautiful and historic château with elegant gardens and the status that brings.
In the last three years, Chinese wine interests have shifted to Burgundy, where Louis Ng Chi Sing, a Chinese gambling tycoon, paid 8 million euros for Château de Gevrey-Chambertin.
But two names dominate the list of Chinese owners: Qu Naijie, an industrialist with net worth estimated at $800 million. He owns nearly 30 Bordeaux vineyards. The second is investor Frank Yu.
According to Yannick Evenou, who runs several properties for Yu, a number of investors, led by Yu, are looking to buy several French properties each worth between 5 and 15 million euros with the aim to export.
Chinese buyers are savvy, according to Yiping Cai, the founder of a Bordeaux wine export company for China called La Selection. He points to the Internet as the key—when buyers are looking for the best price.
That bodes well for Le Pan.
Susan Owens is the founder and editor of Paris Chérie, a Paris-based fashion website dedicated to bringing French style news to Chinese readers.