King of Wines
06 November 2013
Paolo Pong, Managing Director, Altaya Group, is considered among the pioneers of Hong Kong’s wine industry
Dubbed Hong Kong’s “King of Wines,” Paulo Pong is considered one of Hong Kong’s wine pioneers, building an empire at both the wholesale and retail levels. In July, Mr Pong was named among 50 of the world’s most influential people in the wine industry by Decanter magazine.
Developing a love for wine from a young age, Mr Pong continued his wine education through wine tastings and master classes taken while working on a university degree in the United States. Upon graduation, he spent four months interning in Bordeaux to deepen his understanding on the French wine trade.
“I worked at Château Patris and Château Cheval Blanc, making more and more connections,” said the 36 year old. Moving back to Hong Kong in 2001, Mr Pong founded Altaya Group with the goal of bringing fine wine to the Hong Kong market, which at the time was dominated by major importers.
Altaya started as a wholesaler, selling to hotels and savvy buyers who ordered by the case, reaching out to customers through fax and telephone. In 2005, the company set up an online business at a time when Internet sales were seeing 15 to 20 per cent growth.
etc wine shops specialise in
Altaya Group now represents 100 estates from around the world and is one of the biggest Asian fine-wine buyers. "We’re close to the top châteaux around the world, which is advantageous," he said. From the 20 to 30 wines a single winery might produce, Altaya selects wines for individual clients, shops and clubs.
In 2011, the group opened its concept retail store etc wine. Each shop specialises in a specific region, whether it’s Champagne, Bordeaux or Burgundy, offering only a limited stock from those places. “We have the deepest selection of Bordeaux, even compared to some merchants in Bordeaux,” he said. “I have been slowly building inventory for this idea,” he said. Clients have responded positively to the concept. Mr Pong said that his outlets have seen sales rise by 50 percent in the past year.
Education is another area Altaya focuses on. "It’s become popular to study wine so that was our goal for retail. To learn, you have to discover and experience by visiting our shops. Burgundy wasn't of much interest until recently, but you build the idea and it becomes popular," he said.
Tastings and classes are held about twice a week, whether as a one-off or six to eight classes focusing on one producer. "There's no limit to wine knowledge,” he said. “As you learn, you develop more sophisticated tastes or want to know producers you’ve missed." In its latest expansion, the group this year acquired Rare and Fine Wines, strengthening its street presence.
Some of the fine wine on offer at etc
Chinese mainland clients, including CEOs of Hong Kong-listed companies, are among Altaya’s regular customers. “They focus a lot on high-end wines, but they still lack knowledge,” said Mr Pong, who is keen to enter the nascent mainland market.
“We’re missing out on new consumers in China who are just learning about wine, so we want a presence,” Mr Pong said, adding that Bordeaux is still the best-known wine on the mainland “We’re not sure yet how we’ll enter, but I think China is the future of wine in Asia, if not the world. There will be more affluent and middle-income consumers in time.”
But Hong Kong is where the wine trade is thriving. “Hong Kong has become the most vibrant market in the world for wine,” Mr Pong said, noting that the development has led to greater competition and has raised standards in the local wine industry.
It all began with the scrapping of wine tax in Hong Kong in 2008, he said. “It created a lot of noise, everyone wanted to sell wine, even shoe retailers.” After the initial surge of would-be entrepreneurs eager to get a slice of the lucrative wine market, “today, we have a more consolidated, stable market and the serious players are here to stay.”
The abolition of wine tax has benefited not just the local industry but consumers, who Mr Pong said can now enjoy affordable fine wines. “Per-capita, we don’t drink as much as other places, but we consume a lot of fine wines. We’re the hottest market in the world.”
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