INTERVIEW - Jean Charles Viens , Franciacorta Ambassador in Asia
December, 20th – The Foreign Correspondents Club
Jean Charles Viens, or better simply known as JC here in Hong Kong, thanks a lot for receiving us and thank You in advance for Your time.
Let’s begin from the very early stages of Your commitment with Italian wines. How did everything start?
Well, my roots in Asia date back from long time ago, as I was here more than 27 years ago and I was involved in a total different sector till recent times. As soon as I decided to focus on wines, I chose to commit myself on the side of communications, educator and marketing. Not on the wine business at all. My aim was to become a great communicator for the region, especially Greater China and people of Franciacorta liked that angle of my experience and background so I could hopefully become their communicator. I started with education first and then I promoted Italian wines always more and more, turning out to be a real spoke person.
When I became editor of Spirito Divino magazine. Unfortunately this magazine does not exist any longer and it was roughly between 2016 and 2018. Always about communication, being a spoke person of Italian wine.
You’re from Canada, the French part. In Italy everybody knows Franciacorta, but how come You got in touch with them being a French-Canadian?
I have been living in HK for 27 years and I met them here. I was just a student 27 years ago and I came here immediately after my studies. I spent all my adult life here. In fact only family and just a few friends are in Canada.
Italians are better to make wine, rather than sell it. Is it true?
That’s a very good question! I am getting tired of this question because Italian people are not putting the issue on the right perspective. When they talk about French superiority, they do not consider that French wines fortune were the British. Without Britons and Dutch people in Bordeaux, nobody would have known that region and its wines. Today Bordeaux is well known worldwide. It got a very very long history of exporting to England. In fact the English thought that the quality wine was the one from Bordeaux, so they started to carry it around the world towards their different colonies. French wines got at least 1,000 years advance notice in comparison to Italian ones. Italy has been isolated from Northern Europe in terms of wine expo.
It was very difficult to carry Italian wines through the Alps because of risk of perish them and the other sole solutions was by boat. Many years ago people were not able to carry wines by boat and they did not know how to preserve it for long time on journeys. Furthermore the sea is very warm and this climate spoils the wine. Bordeaux is much closer to England in a cold environment because most of transportation was done in autumn before the first ice and so that’s why we need to put all in perspective when comparing Italian and French wines.
Without the English, the French would not be as strong as they are today. The quality of wine in Bordeaux and Burgundy is sensational , also champagne is amazing. Their quality has been promoted and launched by the English, though.
Second point of this question that I find a bit difficult for me to explain is the average size of wineries: in Italy it is half of those in France. This is what I am trying to explain to Italians. Whenever You want to do export, you need to be aware of the business in export: which means going beyond buying tickets to go abroad, but it means investments. How can You invest so much if You’re too small?
In terms of quantity of wine being produced?
The problem is not only quantity of wine. It is also that they seem to be open to export in 20 countries. But the issue is not a race. Export is a serious business and Italian producers do not support marketing activities required by export. French wine producers travel a lot, organize wine dinners, support importers, attend exhibitions…. Many Italians think that their job is over when they find an importer, without need to do anything further.
If You don’t support yourr partner overseas, you are not properly doing export. For importers and distributors it is much easier to promote and sell wines that are famous and more prestigious. And unfortunately most of Italian wines are not so famous here, frankly speaking. But they think they are!! If you’re famous in your village, it’s awesome, but You need to be famous in your province, region and then in whole Italy.
So your question is a very complicated one. Unfortunately when I tell this hard truth, people do not like what they hear from me.Today Italy would be as strong as France if they could havehad the support of English and Dutch as much as the French did.
On the other hand, Italians are very strong in America thanks to the Italian diaspora. Without it, Italians would be nothing. Italians don’t want to hear that America is a natural extension of Italy. Most of distributors there are Italian. They got a natural inclination to promote Italian food and wine. If these people were Hungarian or German, Italians would not be so much famous as they are.
When you come to Asia, you need marketing skills. And without such marketing skills, you’re not able to succeed in this market. How can You explain that wines from Georgia are far more famous in China rather than the Italian ones?! It’s very simple: because there’s a geo-political affinity between China and Georgia. They invested a lot in China and grabbed the attention of Chinese people. Georgian wines are still wines. So not too different than Italian. But are Italians really ready to afford China? Yes, provided they can bare a series of questions: in terms of time, human and financial resource. If you are not able to invest in these 3 areas, forget China and Asian markets. Better stay home.
So that’s why I am tired of this question because Italians are looking for the single bullet. It does not exist! Only in movies You can kill 3 persons with 1 bullet.
Italians are looking for low skills HR in Asia. They don’t wanna invest and don’t wanna pay. Unfortunately Italian companies are not willing to pay the right salary to right people. How can they expect to be successful? Salaries based on commissions only is not correct. French, Spanish, Australian…they’re all ready to pay the right people. Italian people do not want to pay in advance. Do not want to pay the effort to build up a network and create a good clients portfolio.
Italians think they can get value for money, they can get maximum result by minimum effort. That’s a clever strategy, but it’s a strategy that is not going to win because the market is very difficult here.
Italians usually think their product is just fine by itself and does not need further explanations. Do You agree? They do not understand the storytelling around.
Wine is a complement to a much wider experience, while most people think to wine as simple food. You talk about wines with friends. You need storytelling. The difference between French and Italians is very simple: Italians sell wines; French sell dreams! Italians shall start selling dreams and prestige…
Even in HK it’s based on the same basis. And I am successful because firstly I entertain people and secondly because I give gifts. Why? Because I want to show-off? No. Because I want to pay respect to my guests with something that is unknown to them. The little they know is that they should know this is a very good bottle. Because it’s a matter of instant recognition. If it’s not the particular label, maybe it’s because of the region. If it’s not the region as a whole, maybe it’s just the province or the country, at least.
Unfortunately Chinese are proud to wear Armani and Gucci, while driving Ferrari cars, but they do not care anything about drinking Italian wines! Why? Because they don’t think Italian wines are the best of the world. And when they entertain guests, they want to show-off and give the best only. For HK and Chinese people it’s the same thing: if You got the chance to spend money, You would pay for French wines, not Italian ones. It’s an automatic immediate recognition of high quality.
I heard the Ministry of Agriculture last autumn saying that success can be achieved by working together. In Italy we got beautiful stories to tell, but we cannot sell because we don’t say anything about our villages, families and regions. We just sell wines.
Italians got another habit: wines of Barolo are known by little percentage of Chinese people. Italians reaction was of misbelief by stating Chinese people need education and learning.
A few months later it came out that German people same number of people know about Barolo. In this case, Italians could not say that Germans need education.
So it’s a matter of : 85% of wine drinkers, they think wine is just a commodity. It’s just like toilet paper! Something You buy in supermarket. Therefore most of the efforts today are focused on 15% of population only! If we consider those wine drinkers involved and interested in wine, who are willing to take course about Barolo because they’re committed, but we focus on 15% of population.
In the world nowadays every single area of wine making is willing and focused on selling to China. Imagine the chaos and confusion existing in China now! So the only way to come out and make Yourself known around is prestige and personal connections.
So this is why people think that just finding importers is enough. It’s not enough! It’s quite difficult for importers to sell. That’s why there are all classifications of Tre Bicchieri or James Suckling….just to help importers make others understand the quality and prestigious of each wine.
Italians keep making the same mistake, though. Now everybody is focused on Etna wines, Sicilian wines, still with small productions…
Yes and no. This wine is very exciting: it comes from volcano, from a region offering the best preserved Greek temples outside Greece….wines are more than 100 years old. A ton of renown people are investing there: Gaja, people from Milan and Florence are totally intrigued on this wine. It’s part of the new trends.
So there’s a lot of storytelling around.
In some way it’s the only one where we can talk about because Italians do not say anything about the other wines and regions. Sicilian wines can really work. People and wine collectors are always looking for something new. They were on Bordeaux, on Burgundy and now they’re waiting for the next big one. And they’re not convinced Barolo can be the one. Sicilian Etna wines can be the ones instead! The issue is that big wineries shall be able to increase their price from 5 to 10% every year. The next big thing like Bordeaux shall be able to increase price every year by more than 5%. If You’re not able to do it, then You won’t be the next Bordeaux. The next big can absolutely be Etna!
Today it’s the new trend and collectors are starting to say ‘it’s cheap. I can buy a few cases’. And they will look how much it will increase on the next following years. They’re looking at the secondary market - it’s the one you see in trading, in the auction, the people who buy to resell . The problem of Barolo is that they cannot increase on secondary market, not even on primary market. Etna can do it. They will create a rarity which will make price increase. By 10, 20 or even 40% and everybody will want to buy Etna!
Chianti got another different kind of problem: Insieme (Together in English). They’re fighting between Chianti and Chianti Classico. Producers are charging very high, some other very low, by creating a sort of distortion on the market. It’s a very typical Italian problem.
Why do wineries not consider glasses too much important for their wines?
Franciacorta recognized the need to design their own glasses. Me, as their Ambassador, can never serve, nor drink their wines in flutes. They understood the importance of right glasses. They forbid me to serve in flute: it must be a glass with large opening. It will provide a much better olfactory sensation, so that we can smell the complexity of wine. We cannot do it in a flute. Drinking in a flute is quite difficult, You need to incline neck and it becomes very uncomfortable.
The texture of bubbles are more creamy in a larger glass, rather than flutes.
Franciacorta is also selling a lifestyle, not only wines, they’re selling Le Bollicine della Moda (Fashion Bubbles): you don’t drink wine, You drink a lifestyle.
Some producers are too purist and would never be associated to fashion. But in fact drinking wine is enriching our lifestyle, it’s about emotions.
Beautiful glass presenting wine in a wonderful way will stimulate nice sensations, exciting feelings, titillation.
We can compare drinking wine to making love. It shall generates the maximum sensorial experiences: starting from the nose , we continue the titillation and stimulation of all feelings up to the final drink. If we don’t have these sensations, we miss something.
Therefore some Italians miss the total involving experience of serving and drinking wines.
Right glasses can help the right enjoyment and living of drinking a nice wine.
While making the wine breath into the glass is just like the tea ceremony in Japan. We shall indulge in a nice glass ceremony before facing an important bottle. It’s all related. I am against decanting the wine, but if we got a nice atmosphere, a beautiful restaurant, the ceremony is needed for sure and therefore the breathing of wine into decanter can turn into a beautiful experience. It could be a ceremonious total involving experience whereby glasses are playing an important part. Producers need to pay more attention to this point
The same during tasting: even if red or white, they use always the same glass…
The problem is storage, because of lack of space . So it’s better to have max 2 glasses for the tasting – aged and young wines.
End of the day, size is not too much important, but the shape is playing a bigger role. Riedel started to tell this ridiculous story, but shape is the real key point.
Furthermore sense of touch is also underestimated, while glasses can convey this kind of experience. Some glasses are too thick, or too heavy and this is very important while drinking. Nowadays people are quite excited by thinnest glasses because they give You a more direct contact with wine inside. Just like for coffee – coffee cups are more trendy if thinner!
So thickness is another important point beyond size.
JC, heartfelt Thank You for Your time and kind availability and for sharing all such wise considerations about wines. It’s been a pleasure meeting You and hope we can have another glass of wine together soon! Happy Christmas and marvelous New Decade ahead