Embodied Spirits:
How to Optimize Growth
in the Chinese Wine Market

John Mini M.S.C.M./L.Ac./Dipl.Ac

Transforming Your Crusade

There’s been a great deal of talk (and action) over the last several years regarding the emergent Asian wine market and how best to tap into it. Although many of the people that I’ve known and worked with generally agree that Asia, principally China, is a vast fertile ground and a very profitable direction to go in, I’ve observed a certain note of dissatisfaction echo back to me time and again with these business ventures.

In each instance what these entrepreneurs have told me is that their products reach a certain level of penetration into the culture, but it seems to stop long before reaching a truly satisfying consummation relative to the potential market.

This phenomenon has kindled in me a response in the form of some suggestions as an offering to wine merchants who want to break into the Asian wine market. These suggestions derive from my lifetime involvement mostly with Chinese culture as a native Californian who grew up in a winemaking family in St. Helena during the 1970s. More specifically, this knowledge comes from my experience of over thirty years as a professional acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’m confident that if you read, learn what I have to say about this subject and take action on my suggestions, your enterprise will be transformed from a potentially fruitless crusade into a legacy that will earn you an enduring position in global economic history.

As with any crusade, the greatest potential danger lies in not understanding the cultural territory that you’re trying to conquer. This often leads not only to a lack of positive rapport, but can also iterate over time into a general communication collapse, with the final result of accomplishing the exact opposite of your initial intentions. My aim is to set this straight from the beginning to avoid potential disaster(s) and harvest the best of what the growing Chinese wine market has to offer for all parties concerned.

Going Beyond the Low Hanging Fruit

There are many different markets within the Chinese culture. This group of people is so vast that it comprises over one quarter of humanity, highly concentrated in their place of origin, yet spread out over every nation of the world. It continues to grow everyday. Yet there are dozens of subcultures within what we call Chinese, and each of them has its own tastes and sensibilities.

The main group that wine merchants have sold to until now hasn’t been an ethnic subculture, but an economic one. This group has a very Western orientation, and is China’s industrial nouveau riche. They’ve been the low-hanging fruit of this industry and haven’t required any skill whatsoever to sell to.

As with any newly moneyed people, China’s young industrial elite purchase and consume wine as a status symbol, with not much if any consideration for or experience of what it really is. They aren’t so different from people in any culture who buy things just because they’re expensive. They’re buying a symbol. The easiest sell possible, this group has comprised the free ride into the Chinese market. We may or may not have a never-ending supply of these people as time goes on. Wisdom dictates that nothing this easy can continue forever unabated.

As with any wealthy nation, there are many more Chinese people who are not fabulously wealthy than are. This enormous majority has more traditional tastes, discernment and judgment to varying degrees than the group above. They’re also much more sophisticated than you can probably imagine. If you really want to capture the Chinese wine market, these are the people you’re going to want to develop rapport with. But how?

One Root, Divergent Branches

Wine. Both Chinese and Europeans have the same idea that it embodies the Jing, or essence, of the grape. Jing is literally a refinement and distillation of the essence of the place where a living being grows and the processes that are involved to derive it. In different contexts, Jing can mean essence, extract, demon, semen and spirit.

The character for Jing, 精, is composed of the sub-characters for grain, master and meat. This describes the illumined guiding power that exists in plants and animals. When Jing is combined with other characters it takes on various shades of meaning. For example, 精神, Jing Shen, is a combination of essence and spirit, which when combined mean psyche, or more accurately embodied spirit. 香精, Xiang Jing, is a combination of fragrance and essence, which when combined mean perfume. There are many other possible combinations that can be applied to this subtle yet vitally important character.

The words for wine, spirit and alcohol are deeply intertwined in the Chinese language. The character 酒, Jiu, means wine, liquor, alcohol, spirits and to guzzle. It’s composed of the sub-characters for liquid and decay/demise/suffering/decline/death. We see its main component appear in the words 酯, Zhi, ester and 酚, Fen, phenol. Wine is specifically referred to as 葡萄酒, Pu Tao Jiu, and means grape wine. The word for alcohol is 酒精, Jiu Jing, combining the words for wine and essence.

In the West, we’ve always called wine and alcohol in general spirits. Our word alcohol comes from the Arabic Al Koh’l, via the ancient alchemical tradition. Al Koh’l means collyrium, or powdered antimony. By extension, it came to mean any impalpable powder produced by trituration or sublimation to create a quintessence, distillation or ‘spirit.’[i] Our word wine comes from the Greek Oinos, which means both vine and wine.[ii]

If we examine pre-Christian European cultural, medical and scientific traditions, they’re often very close or identical to those of the ancient Chinese. There’s a strong possibility that these wide-ranging cultures share the same origins, or perhaps co-influenced each other in ancient history.[iii] At the very least, we know that cultural and scientific exchange occurred long ago via the Persian empire[iv], but these connections may extend back at least as far as ancient Egypt.[v]

Different Palates, Different Vocabulary

Wine was celebrated in its early days because it represented a revolution in nutrition. It served as a radical new method to store calories and many other qualities for a very long time. It’s these qualities that we want to talk about here.

The West has developed through its science a handful of ways to describe some of the processes that nature uses to create things such as wine. Very detailed explanations and rationalizations exist for why consumables taste the way they do. This has led to chemical mimicry on the part of both the food and wine industries, which has also led to a very specific technical vocabulary related to these processes.

The problem is that this worldview, based in science, is oversimplified and incomplete. It may get us a little closer to making better wine or food on an industrial level, but it does not in itself take us to the level of producing excellent wine or food on any level. It’s precisely in this arena of excellence that Chinese vocabulary begins to get us closer to our goal.

Wine and Gong Fu

The first and most important Chinese concept to help us bridge the gap between mediocrity and excellence is that of 功夫, Gong Fu. Although this idea is understood in the West to apply to the martial arts, its true meaning runs throughout Chinese culture and has much deeper implications.

The term Gong Fu can be applied to any art, or more generally the way that one does things. Gong Fu means a depth of excellence that leaves one in awe when it is witnessed or experienced. Gong Fu is an actual physical quality that can be measured as being present or not. Those who possess it in great measure are the ones who can most accurately assess it.

Although the concept of Gong Fu may sound unusual to a non-Chinese person, it’s absolutely at the core of nearly every Chinese evaluation of a product, service or experience of any kind.

The Eight Qualities That Can’t Be Ignored

The second most important Chinese concept is actually an entire mindset and vocabulary that describes the qualities of any substance in terms of its effects on people when they come in contact with it. This means that any substance such as wine will be regarded not only for its sensorial effects in the moment, but also for its lasting effects that span across multiple scales of time. The Chinese are and always have been very focused on the effects of actions and where these effects will lead.

As I mentioned above, wine is regarded by the Chinese worldview in a way that includes the spirit of its origin. Where the product began, the spirit of the place and its Feng Shui, the skill of the winemakers, their education, lineage and family will all be considered. How the final product is cared for and finally presented, and most of all, what the effects of the wine will be in the long and short-term are all deeply examined and evaluated.

The effects of wine and food to the Asian consumer go far beyond the limits of what nearly any Westerner would consider. These effects are rated according to at least eight scales of quality:

Taste is one dimension. Even at this seemingly straightforward level, the Chinese palate is vastly different from the European or American. In a wine tasting, every person tastes different wine. Although this is a platitude among gourmands in general, it becomes an exponential factor when people of an Asian background are at the tasting. Beyond that, taste in the Chinese vocabulary actually includes the long-range effects of the substance on one’s health. So the entire concept is just very different from ours.

Another scale is tropism, meaning where do the effects of the wine go in the body?

What is the action of the wine? This means what does it do to the body and the 氣, Qi or bioenergy, once it gets to where it’s going?

What path does the substance take to get out of the body once it’s been there and done its thing?

Another scale is temperature. This has nothing to do with the physical temperature of the wine itself when it’s consumed. Temperature relates to the nature of the wine, and whether it will tend to make a person feel warmer or cooler when s/he drinks it.

Yet another consideration in quality is what kind of energy does this wine attract? This means what types of experiences begin to happen when a person purchases this wine, stores it in her/his home and finally drinks it? Simply put, does it bring good luck, bad luck or something in between?

What are the atmospheric conditions, time of year, ritual holidays, taboos, and general flow of what’s going on at the moment the wine is going to be enjoyed? What kind of wine -or not- will get a person into a better experience on the river of life and put her/him into a greater state of harmony with that river? This is the aim of the Chinese experience.

How will the wine interact with the food a person has been eating? Is it all going to work together well, or will it bring out some kind of subtle antagonisms that s/he will need to pay for now or in the future?

Descriptions of wine to a Chinese consumer will have to take all of these points into account in a serious way if a wine is to be considered in a serious way. Those who want to address this issue sincerely will want to invest time and focus into it with people who are genuinely qualified to do so. This effort will be more than worthwhile as it will meet the Chinese consumer more than half way in the process of exchange.

Some Important Generalizations

Here are a few very general guidelines to adhere to when discussing the subject of wine with a Chinese potential consumer:

- Reds are relatively warming and tend go to the heart. They’re more suitable for Northern China, mountainous regions, and during the winter months. When used properly, they tonify the blood.

- Whites are cooler and go more to the lungs. They’re more suitable for Southern China and the warmer parts of the year. When used correctly, they can clear heat, inflammation and irritation.

- Sweeter wines go more to the spleen. They’re most well suited for people who think a lot, and are best enjoyed at the change of seasons.

- Drier wines often clean the heart and occasionally clean the liver if used in the right way.

- Wines without Gong Fu are detrimental to health under all circumstances. Wines with Gong Fu can be salubrious if they’re used correctly. If a wine has less Gong Fu than you do, it will harm you if you drink it. If it has as much or more than you do, it may benefit you to drink it in moderation.

These are sweeping but important generalizations. It’s both possible and necessary to make broad assessments of classes of wines and specific evaluations of every bottling on an individual basis.

A New Focus on Quality and Education

The big perk around the Gong Fu issue with respect to wine is that it places top priority on quality. The better a wine is, the more it’s going to be appreciated and valued. For example, if word gets out that your product rates 5 out of 5 on the good luck scale, you’ll be able to command ludicrous prices that have never been applied to wine before.

The big ouch is that none of this can be faked. If your wine doesn’t fare well on any of the levels we’ve discussed here, you won’t be able to sell your wine even for generic New Year’s presents in the Chinese market. And everybody in China is going to know it. Fast.

What’s coming as a result of our new relationship with the Chinese wine market is a reckoning between image and substance. It will force us to make better wine and have more substance in general with what we make and do. This will include dimensions of quality that we haven’t considered in Europe and the West for several generations.

The most forward thinking wine merchants today understand the importance of educating the Chinese on the virtues and culture of wine. The process of educating others begins with educating oneself. This is nowhere more true than in our dealings with the Chinese wine market.

To be sure, much of China’s urban population has left the old ways of thinking as far back in the past as we have with our own European roots and heritage. Yet this is the language of their grandparents and great grandparents and it still lives in them very strongly. If you go the extra mile to learn this system and communicate with your Chinese customers at this level, you will do much more than tickle an atavistic funny bone. On a business level, you’ll blow them away.

[i] Oxford English Dictionary.

[ii] Oxford Greek-English Lexicon.

[iii] Joseph Needham’s documentation of the origin of virtually every pre-modern European invention of note is categorically analyzed in his epic Science and Civilization in Ancient China.

[iv] Mc Evilley, Thomas. The Shape of Ancient Thought. 2002, Allworth Press, New York.

[v] [v] Mini, John. Marijuana Syndromes. 2012. John Mini, Tiburon.

John Mini M.S.C.M./L.Ac./Dipl.Ac.