Q. How has the market for wine increased in Thailand over the past five years?
A. The market has grown quite rapidly with far more wine focused bistros, restaurants and clubs. Exact numbers are hard to come by but you can see in areas all over Bangkok how many of these “Wine Somethings” have opened. It has changed drinking habits and forced more traditional hotels and restaurants to make their wine offer more approachable. You can see a lot of people eating out and drinking wine as much as they used to eat at home and then go to a club. The trend is to have dinner with wine and then go out to the clubs.
Q. Will it continue to grow?
A. I think we may have reached a limit on just how many of these wine-themed restaurants can survive. However, the restaurant industry thrives on wealthy people thinking opening a restaurant is a cool thing to do and there is a lot of ego and vanity involved. The smarter operators will be more cautious as the competition is fierce in this category. The number of wine drinkers will continue to grow as it is fashionable to drink wine and not whiskey.
A. There seems to be new ones every day and some of the older, more established importers are having to work harder to keep up. Many producers see Asia as a growing market and there are a limited number of serious agents to handle the brands. Sometimes, they turn to a smaller company to take them on with little risk on their part. This means that there are a lot of smaller importers around.
Q. How big is Thailand as a wine consumer per head compared to, say, China, Singapore and traditional wine-drinking nations?
A. China is not a huge market, per capita. Singapore is a good market but it is hard to tell sometimes as the re-export of wine from there skews the numbers a bit. Thailand is a very good wine drinking market but it is next to impossible to gauge the actual consumption, as a significant portion of the consumption here is not “official.” Official numbers are not so high but the reality is that a lot of wine is consumed here in Thailand on a daily basis.
Q. Which countries are now the biggest suppliers?
A. Italy, France, Australia, the United States, Chile and several others are the biggest players in the world. In Thailand, Australia and Chile are doing well and Italy and France are always strong.
Q. Has that changed in recent years?
A. The only thing that has changed is the growth or awareness of other countries like Argentina, which produces world-class wines but until recently, never exported them. Domestic consumption was very good and unlike Chile, which makes almost everything for export, Argentineans drink their best wines. The same is true for America, where domestic demand is high and export is a low priority. We are also seeing wines from lesser known areas of places like France and Italy and huge growth in German wines here in Thailand.
Q. Any reason for their particular popularity?
A. Sometimes, as in the case for Chile, it is about price. For Italy and France, this used to be the case as we were flooded with cheap wines but now the value is much higher on these wines and people are drinking a bit better.
Q. Is the average wine drinker in Thailand better informed about wine than before?
A. I am skeptical as I can see what brands hold down the top spots in the market. In order to determine the “health” of a wine market, you have to see what is selling. Large wineries with branded wines don’t want educated consumers. They want you educated about their wine, not wine in general. The more a wine drinker learns, the better the drinker becomes. This does not necessarily mean money spent but what choices they make. Nine times out of ten, there is a better wine than the mass produced one for the same money. You just have to know how to buy. I would love everyone to develop a passion for wine and learn more so that we could bring in even more exciting wines for the consumer and there would be a willingness to try. The current laws on alcohol also make it very difficult to educate the consumer.
Q. Any marked trends in wine preferences?
A. I am seeing more wines that are geared to food being sold such as German Rieslings, which are great with Thai salads and some curries. Generally, we are still seeing huge growth in the less expensive category in retail and the mid-priced in hotels and restaurants. The big brands still dominate though.
Q. How does Thailand rank internationally in terms of its wine taxation? Is that likely to change anytime soon?
A. Number 1 in the world and unlikely to change for various reasons, none of which has anything to do with generating tax revenue or curbing the consumption.
Q. How widespread is wine smuggling?
A. Wine smuggling is massive, systematic, organized and well ingrained.
Q. Fruit wine is gaining popularity – but are its drinkers fully aware of what they’re actually drinking?
A. This is something that has been around for awhile as there is a loophole in the taxation scheme for “Fruit Wine.” By adding some local fruit juice to an imported wine and repackaging it, there is a lower tax requirement. How it is marketed and explained to the consumer is another story.
Q. When it comes to advertising wine (or alcohol) in Thailand – does anyone really understand the rules and regulations?
A. Technically, you are not allowed to do anything that “encourages the sale of alcohol.” This includes price discounting, free gifts, advertising or marketing. That phrase could be used to make almost anything illegal when it comes to selling alcohol. The bigger companies fully understand what they are allowed to do and what they can do without too much trouble.
Q. What difficulties do you face when trying to arrange a wine course or wine tasting event in Thailand?
A. A large scale wine tasting is simply not possible. We hosted an annual event six times before the laws changed and now, it is impossible to do this anymore. We were the only company that invited all of our wineries and winemakers to come to Bangkok and have a large-scale event for the trade and then open it up to the public. Hosting a wine course is also difficult as the way it is marketed and the words used could be construed as encouraging people to drink.
Q. Will these rules ever be relaxed?
A. I am not optimistic in the short-term as there is a real battle between the anti-alcohol lobby and the reality of what happens here in Thailand. These laws have been completely ineffective in curbing drink driving, excessive consumption, domestic violence and other health-related issues. The only solution is getting the alcohol companies to use marketing funds to encourage responsible drinking and provide education and awareness. Since they are not even allowed to discuss this, we are stuck in this ridiculous Catch-22 of a situation.
Q. What are your views about Thailand’s own winemakers/vineyards? Will they ever be able to compete with the world’s top brands/names?
A. In fairness and full disclosure, I represent Granmonte for the trade and I am pleased to support their effort to make great wines here in Thailand. Nikki, the winemaker, is very good and very talented and she has a real passion. The grapes she has to work with get better and better every year since her dad is the viticulturist and just as passionate. The competition on the world stage will be difficult but it is my belief that some of the wines are very good and not a novelty. What needs to happen is for Thais to see wines like Granmonte on wine lists in restaurants in London, Hong Kong, New York, Melbourne, etc… so that they can get validation outside of the country that the wines are good.
Q. What’s the future of wine drinking in Thailand?
A. I see it as positive. We need more education from the trade. Hotels and restaurants need to raise the bar on the standard of wine service and education for their staff. People need help with wine and it is the responsibility of the industry to help. The cultural challenges make this harder here but it only takes a few brave souls to push the envelope and not be afraid to stand there and recommend a wine with confidence.