Why does Hong Kong lack true wine bars?
Excluding restaurants or hotel bars or wine shops, how many solely wine focused bars can you find in Hong Kong? Some may argue that Hong Kong is spoilt for choice given its status as a wine trading hub and a gastronomic capital in Asia.
The argument is certainly correct if you count hotel venues and restaurants that serve wine.
But strangely, for a city whose wine market stands at US$1.543 billion, bars that are solely dedicated to wines are limited to only a handful, such as the city’s natural wine bar La Cabane, French wine specialist LQV, and tasting room La Vin.
Admittedly the city’s strong BYO culture and most importantly its astronomical rental price for limited space – one of the highest in the world – have pushed even wine-focused establishments to maximise every inch of a space’s value, with Hip Cellar in North Point for instance operating as a restaurant, wine storage and a retail wine shop. This kind of multi-function formula is repeated by Wine Vault, La Bistro WineBeast and 121BC though the last two do not offer wine storage service.
Christopher Mark, co-founder of one of Hong Kong’s largest restaurant groups, Black Sheep, calls the city’s sky rocketing rental price as “cost-prohibitive” to running a wine bar. The group at the moment owns 17 venues including an Italian wine bar called Stazione Novella, located on the corner of the busy Staunton and Aberdeen Streets.
“In order to offset the pricey property costs and to capitalise on the busy location, we operate as an all-day destination with coffee in the morning, panini for lunch and wine in the evenings,” said Mark when interviewed by dbHK.
This format of operating on fringe services such as coffee and simple meals in addition to wine has become a formula for bars to survive, with the likes of Fine Print in Central and Detour in Sai Ying Pun popping up in the city.
“I imagine that economics plays a big part, it’s clear to everyone here that it is not cheap to set up and operate a physical location – especially one that really only operates in the evening,” commented Adam Green, founder of a boutique wine importing company, BottleShock, while giving a nod to Detour and Amber, both of which double as coffee shops and wine bars.
The city’s lack of a true wine bar has not gone unnoticed by American wine critic and Hong Kong resident James Suckling, who has decided to throw his hat into the ring with a new wine bar in the pipeline expected to open this year, dbHK has learned.
Echoing the same sentiment about Hong Kong’s rental price, Suckling said: “A lot of it has to do with finding the space. It’s really hard to find good restaurant space in Hong Kong. We are still finalising our lease now. But also running a wine bar with good food is no easy matter. It takes a good team and great knowledge about wine. We should be able to do that with my team at JamesSuckling.com and at our wine showroom/restaurant James Suckling Wine Central”.
Continuing, he said, “My wine bar – actually a wine showroom – will feature all the wines from my events in Hong Kong including Great Wines of World, Great Wines of Italy, and Bordeaux Confidential. So people will have the chance to taste a wine from each producer at my events all of the time instead of just 3.5 hours for one day. All the wines will be served by the glass with Coravin”.
This chasm between Hong Kong’s dynamic wine trading activities and its limited wine bars also reflects that the city’s wine culture is largely driven by fine wine market and auction numbers, according to Green. “The wine culture in Hong is dynamic and continuing to develop. However, I think the growth of the auction and fine wine market here drives the concept of Hong Kong being Asia’s wine hub,” he explained, adding that the city’s wine culture pales in comparison with Japan.
“Auction numbers look impressive but they mainly relate to the activities of the super-rich. This is a opposed to the everyday wine drinkers who are key to really building a really vibrant wine culture, and here Hong Kong still has space to develop further.”