After more than 15 years of making inroads, Torres China is now that country’s second-largest wine distributor with annual case sales exceeding 160,000 and growth running at about 40% annually. Having brought on Baron Philippe de Rothschild as a partner in 2007, Shanghai-based Torres China employs 230 people nationwide and has expanded into the Chinese winemaking forum via its Symphony brand. Wine Enthusiast recently spoke with company founder Miguel A. Torres about doing business in a country with more than a billion people, evolving into a multifaceted wine business, and what wines go best with Chinese food.
Wine Enthusiast: Torres China incorporated in 1997; can you describe the business?
Miguel Torres: Our motto is “More Than a Winery.” We started as a joint venture in 1993 and formed our own distribution company in 1997. Now we cover 90% of the country and have offices in Shanghai, where we do about one-third of our business, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu. Our goal is to get as close to our customers as possible and to help grow China’s wine culture from where it is today—which is mostly about prestige drinking—to consumption for pure pleasure.
WE: How many wineries/brands do you represent in China?
MT: We have more than 50 brands from nearly 40 families. A little under half of what we sell is Torres and Mouton; I believe Mouton Cadet is the top-selling wine in China. But we have other important wines: Taittinger, Coppola, Vega Sicilia, Chapoutier and Symington are some of the names we handle.
WE: How would you describe the wine culture in China?
MT: The growing upper-middle class is taking wine seriously; others you still see mixing wine with soda pop. I’ve seen it myself…somebody putting 7-Up into our Mas La Plana. It proves what people say: Never try to sell a wine in China that’s too dry.
WE: What are the most significant changes that have occurred in China since you first entered the country in the 1990s?
MT: When the century changed China began reducing import duties. Now there are almost none; it’s virtually duty free. This doesn’t mean doing business in China has become easy, but compared to India and Brazil, China offers a good environment. In 2003, we were still losing about $1 million a year; now we are making a profit on nearly $20 million in sales.
WE: How often do you get to China and what’s it like when you’re there?
MT: I’m in China once a year and I need that trip to practice the language. I already have a pet line that I say in Chinese: “Wine is good. But Torres wine is better.” The people are very welcoming, especially if they see that you are active in their communities. In Chengdu, which was hit by a bad earthquake two years ago, we took the initiative to rebuild a school. Now that school is almost open and the emotions are high. They saw a foreign company that could help.
WE: So you speak Chinese now?
MT: I’m learning. In fact, today in the car ride from Barcelona to our winery in Vilafranca I listened to my Chinese CDs.
WE: What wines go best with authentic Chinese dishes?
MT: I like red wine with Chinese food. I think the spices go well with Merlot. I often open bottles of our Atrium Merlot or Santa Digna from Chile.
WE: And you’re also making wine in China?
MT: Yes, with Grace Vineyard [near Beijing] we made our first white wine in 2009 called Symphony; it’s made from Hamburg Moscatel [Black Muscat]. In 2010 we made our first red wine with Syrah and Merlot.
WE: Any insider information on how to get things done in China?
MT: Don’t think that things will be easy, or that you won’t have to spend money to make money. You may also want to try to get a diplomatic passport to help you get through the lines at the airports. China is the only place I’ve ever used that passport. And now that I’ve told you I’m worried I won’t be able to use it again.