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A gentleman of great taste: Alun Griffiths MW

If Alun Griffiths MW was ever contemplating retirement and a quiet life, he faced a quick change of heart when VATS came calling on his expertise for an unexpected Chinese adventure.

Alun Griffiths MW

NO-ONE – least of all himself – expected Alun Griffiths MW to leave Berry Bros & Rudd. A veteran of a decade and a half, he was nearing retirement age and, so he and everyone else thought, winding down.

But then came an unexpected call, bringing with it an unexpected offer, and once again this calm, considered Englishman found himself embarking on “one last fling in my career, doing something that I love doing”.

To be headhunted by a Chinese distributor best known for baijiu – the fiery spirit that has for so long dominated the banquet table and the gift box – with a brief to turn his new employers, VATS, into a respected wine merchant was something that attracted the 58 year old, although, as he is happy to point out, it took him a while to settle into the idea. “My first reaction was cautious, I must

say, given what I knew about the Chinese market, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, why not?”

Griffiths points out that VATS – and its young, dynamic chairman, the man who built the company up from scratch, sold the role to him as an opportunity to enjoy a position that embodied what he considered – and still considers – to be his two key skills in this industry.

He says that they approached him to tap into his ability to “choose the product, and to communicate it in a way that encourages people to buy or, in the case of our staff, to become knowledgeable so they can educate others.

Griffiths declares: “Coming here was more about choosing the wine, and telling people about it; taking a fledgling market and trying to make an impression on it. They made me an attractive offer, of course, but it was the challenge factor that attracted me to it.”

At present, he says, VATS is the number- one distributor of luxury spirits in China, which given the market, pertains largely to its dominance in baijiu. The company also produces the spirit in 11 distilleries.

“They have some superlative brands of baijiu that they make and a contract with one or two of the big producers”, explains Griffiths. ”Their rallying cry, or motto, is ‘number one distributor of authentic liquors’ – and authentic means something in China, compared to some other markets – so it is logical that if they seek to do the same with wines, it’s going to be high quality wines.”

And so it was to England and Griffiths’ expertise that they turned. It showed a great deal of pragmatism – if not outright humility – on the part of VATS to seek Griffiths out. The company realised that, to develop this nascent – but hugely promising – market segment, they needed a knowledgeable, overseas voice , not only internally but also to provide a demonstrable level of expertise to an often-sceptical public.


Griffiths explains: “What [VATS] recognised was, when trying to develop a wine business which had some credibility, they didn’t have nearly sufficient expertise in wine. Yes, they’ve been buying wine, they have a tasting panel, but it doesn’t give them any edge over the competition – all the buying committees in all the companies are Chinese.”

While the upper end of the market in China is doing exceedingly well – despite the not-inconsiderable “blip” of massive overbuying of 2010 Bordeaux – it is the much wider, more aspirant emerging middle class where the real money lies. While this young, dynamic market segment comes of age with wine, few China-based distributors have the background or expertise to convincingly sell to this huge customer base.

Having a specialist with Griffiths’ background, experience, length of service and an intimate knowledge of the supply side – his MW qualification, his 35 years in the British wine trade, his connections to one of the oldest and most revered names in wine – helped give VATS a marketing edge over their rivals and accelerate the process.

“They trust me and say, “Right, if Alun says this wine is good, then it’s good’, and they don’t then need to go and convince the Chinese consumer. They’ve had a couple of wine buyers whom they thought would make this next step but they thought it would accelerate the process to bring in a European.”

Griffiths’ role now has changed and he says that he is much more freed up these days to get back to “the things that matter.” He has recently returned from a tour of minor Chinese cities – Tier 5, he says – which is relatively uncharted territory.

“It’s partly training with the customers”, he remarks. ”Going to a Tier 5 city where they don’t see too many foreigners who are wine specialists, they appreciate that you’ve come – and therefore they make an effort to come out, and they buy wine. It’s a bridge-building thing, its about supporting the VATS local teams, getting customer loyalty, doing something over and above simply offering them wine.”


Among the “hundreds” of importers in the country Griffiths feels very few of them have any real penetration into the market, or any even any “real, serious knowledge”.

He continues, “You saw how ASC and Summergate attracted so many at the beginning in the early days – because they were the only act in town. Now it is so crowded in ASC people are looking for alternatives, so that’s where VATS might come in.”

And it is up to Griffiths – largely, at least – to helm the latest VATS project and one that has the most potential to reach a substantial audience and finally gain the important toehold that the company is striving for in this huge market.

He explains: “A lot of Chinese consumers are starting to buy more and more things online and wine is one of those, so the focus for this year, the number one priority, is to build an online store that will focus on wines in different categories, I will write all the notes that back this up.”

The idea is that VATS will build the site around Griffiths, focus on him and use his overseas expertise as the face of the company’s wine expansion. To ease unsteady consumers into the often- bewildering world of wine, there will be “Alun’s choices”, pointers at a variety of price points, to take the difficulty out of choosing wines.

“They’ll be unashamedly saying, right, we’ve hired this guy from Europe, we’re the first ones to think to do this and this is what he recommends you drink.”

And while the French wines dominate the market, he says that Spain has a great opportunity in China – much of the Spanish production is a style of wine that the Chinese market likes.

CV: Alun Griffiths
• 1976-1981: Stones of Belgravia Wine Merchants, London SW1 Positions: Sales assistant, latterly manager
• 1981-1983: Butlers Wine Bar, Barbican, London EC2 Position: Manager
• 1983-1985: Enotria Wines Ltd, London NW10
Position: Regional sales executive
• 1985-1987: Fields Wine Merchants, London SW3
Positions: Retail manager, latterly
office manager
• 1987-1992: Fortnum & Mason,
London SW1
Position: Wine department manager and buyer
• 1992-1994: Harrods, London SW3 Position: Wine department manager and buyer
• 1994-2012: Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd, London SW1
Positions: General manager Heathrow 1994-1996;
wine director 1996-2006;
wine buying director 2006-2012
• 2013: VATS Liquor Chain Store Management Co. Ltd, Beijing Position: Director international
• Alun is married with two children and was awarded the title of Master of Wine in 1991, achieving the Bollinger Award for his tasting.

“They like soft red wines, they don’t like high acid wines, with a bit of richness on the palate. Someone mentioned to me recently that the ideal red wine to attack the Chinese market with would be a sweet red wine with a bit of residual sugar – so the warmth of Spain or the Languedoc. I think Spain has a wonderful opportunity here.”

As for the ongoing dominance of France on China’s fine wine scene, Griffiths notes: “The Chinese consumer likes a story, and its not surprising that

France has almost half the market. There is a history behind Burgundy, Bordeaux – these châteaux; there’s a story behind them.”

When the new, improved VATS website goes live it will, he says, help build his profile along with the VATS image. “They want to be the number one wine distributor in quality terms. How big it’s going to be, if it’s going to be explosive, we just don’t know, and we can’t wait to find out.”

Much of this uncertainty, he says stems from the sheer enormity of the task ahead of him in terms of bringing a potential market of hundreds of millions up to speed when it comes to this relatively new, still very alien product.


The level of knowledge, even in the capital, where the world’s most expensive wines have in recent years been gifted with abandon, is sorely lacking, he says. And that is the moneyed (and political) classes, who at least are familiar with wine, respect its cachet, and have thus provided the market. Dealing with a different set of criteria, from tastes to perceptions of price, are challenges.

“Beijing is very much baijiu country. There’s very little knowledge [about wine], quite honestly. There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and interest but not a real knowledge of – or appreciation of quality – about wine.

He says, “I did a tasting in the office and one of the samples, a white Burgundy, was slightly oxidized – it was over the top, it was going nowhere but it got the best marks out of any of the wines we were tasting, because it was round, because of its age, compared to some of the younger ones which were quite mineral, quite sharp for their taste. So there’s a long way to go.”

It may be a long way to go, but he’s finding his audience receptive. Wine, he has observed, is not being appreciated the same way that it is in Hong Kong – “it’s not even being consumed at the table in the same way as it is in Hong Kong” – but he feels it is in the hands of the younger people, those who travel more and may have been educated in Europe and America.

”These are the ones who are going to get far more imbued with the wine culture as part of their every day life. For the older Chinese people, wine culture is something that has been thrust at them, perhaps in their 40s and 50s, with no prior knowledge. The young will acquire [an understanding and appreciation of wine] much more easily.

“[New wine drinkers in China] probably don’t have the confidence at the moment to put their head above the parapet and put forward their opinion on what they discover in wines, but the other side of that coin is that they’re not afraid to ask what might otherwise be considered stupid questions.”

Griffiths is keeping an eye trained on local production for the time being, given that almost all wine made in China is sold domestically, most of which comes in at a sub-100 renminbi (£10) price. VATS currently represents around 30 Chinese wineries (“three or four of these are actually quite good”) and.Griffiths is quietly confident that, with a change in direction, more and more quality wines will be seen to emerge from China.

“Sales of Chinese-made wine are still strong,” he says. “These are at an entry- level price and aren’t competing with the top end stuff. The Chinese wines [generally] are poor – the majority are hopelessly over-cropped so the problem exists at the viticultural level, not at vinification. The problem is that at the moment there is no incentive for growers to control their quality, their yield – they’re paid per kilo.

“I was tasting a Cabernet Sauvignon the other day that looked like a rosé because it was so thin. I don’t have any doubts that they can produce decent wine here but they must get that production side into focus.”

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