Unfiltered with Castle Li of COFCO

Castle Li at Great Wall’s relaunch event of its Chateau SunGod wine range in Beijing earlier this month

What are your thoughts when you won Man of the Year Award at our drinks business Asian Awards 2017?  

I was quite surprised, and wasn’t really prepared. I think this award given by the drinks business to COFCO is a vote of confidence in our imported wine business and our domestic wine development as well, which will inspire us to achieve more in the future.

You studied Economics and Foreign Relations at Beijing University, so how did you get into wine industry? 

I did double degrees in Economics and Foreign Relations, and I have been doing consumer products afterwards with Unilever, and wine is a type of consumer product.

What was the first wine you’ve drank when you joined COFCO? 

The first wine I drank when I got to COFCO was Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon A Zone and Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon Huaxia Reserve. I don’t drink much really, and not to mention wine. I thought the wines were great though, and was impressed with their aromas and structure.

 

What are you hobbies outside of work?

I love football, sports and reading. I love the Barcelona team, and when we started with our imported wine business [in 2014], I planned our business strategy around the concept of football as well. We call our portfolio ”Super Star Club”, which means that we pick star performers from each country to form the best possible lineup. Doing wine business is not a short sprint, or one man’s work, rather a team effort. But everyone plays different roles, and has different responsibilities. As for our portfolio, some brands target volume sales, others are for the overall portfolio diversity. We actually designed a football team inspired portfolio lineup map, using McGuigan as a forward and some other products as centre forward etc. This analogy with football is easy for distributors to understand. So we have always said that we are looking for star performers like Lionel Messie and Cristiano Ronaldo.

How long have been a fan of football? 

More than 30 years, like 32 or 33 years since I started playing football at the age of 7 or 8. I was quite good at it as well. But I haven’t been playing much since I started working. When I was in high school and university, I was playing for our school’s football team.

Do you have any hidden talent? 

Nothing special or unknown to the public yet. I like sports and hiking, and I used to do that quite frequently when I was in Beijing University.

What’s your motto in life? How does it inspire you? 

Chateau SunGod Chief Winemaker’s Selection, a wine range made with consultant Michel Rolland

I don’t follow a specific motto, but I am always a strong believer that hard work and perseverance can lead to success.

Not long ago, you were appointed as the general manager of Great Wall winery. What main challenges do you think Chinese wineries face in gaining international recognition? 

I think there are mainly two challenges: Firstly, I think Chinese vintners have to be more open minded because only when you are willing to learn and keep an open mind, will you be able to have a broader international vision. Secondly, I believe leading Chinese wineries such as Great Wall and Changyu have to lead the wine industry in China to the global stage, not these boutique wineries. Even if we have a Chinese wine made by LVMH, it can’t revive the domestic wine industry. Only when leading brands like Changyu and Great Wall can fully commit to growing the wine industry, can the whole industry be improved. We need big brands behind this cause to push it forward. For brands that only sell about 10,000 or 20,000 bottles, it’s hard for them to cause any significant ripples effects for fellow wineries. It has to come from large scale, leading wineries, then the impact will be much bigger.

What new wines will Great Wall’s ‘SunGod’ be launching this year? 

We will be hosting a relaunch event of Great Wall ‘SunGod’ on 3 Janaury, 2018*. The goal is to build a world-class wine that could represent China. This is our premium brand wine, and we have cut back quite a lot of lower range wines. Since I took over, we have cut more than 40% of our wines. These include not only lower range wines, but also wines that were not clearly defined or were repetitive. I think in the future, SunGod is surely going to be a premium Chinese wine because we have a strong base and impressive scale as well.

What wines will be in the SunGod range? 

We are making a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, a Shiraz and a Riesling. It all started in 1972 when premier Zhou (Enlai) called out nationally to select plots to make dry wines, and it was in 1978 that we decided on the vineyards in Hebei province. From then on, experiments in vine selections were conducted, and this is perhaps the only place in China that has vines of nearly 40 years old, quite rare. The oldest vines I know in Ningxia province are probably only 19 years old. This is also the wine that was drunk by Donald Trump during his state visit to China in 2017, along with a Chateau SunGod Great Wall ‘The Chief Winemaker’s Selection’ Cabernet Sauvignon. We made the last range with wine consultant Michel Rolland (who has worked with Great Wall since 2011).

 

*The interview was conducted late 2017, so the relaunch event hadn’t happened.

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