Drinking up the good life

Updated: 2011-02-11 15:41

By Wang Chao (China Daily European Weekly)

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 Drinking up the good life

Christopher Coughlan, a sommelier at Changyu Pioneer Wine Co Ltd, says Yantai is the Riviera of China. Wang Chao / China Daily

Aussie sommelier’s dream job in Yantai

Christopher Coughlan's job might be one of the best in the world - he travels around the country, tasting different wines and matching them with food.

It is all part of his work as a sommelier in Changyu Pioneer Wine Company Ltd in Yantai.

Coming from Adelaide, Australia, a major wine producting area, drinking wine is part of the 49-year-old Coughlan's life.

"At six or seven, I drank my first glass of wine, well before I was of legal age," he says.

"There are a lot of people from Europe in my neighborhood, so I grew up with people from Italy, France and Spain. During holiday seasons, each family would cook something nice and I got to taste different wines since very young."

In 1997, Coughlan met a number of Yantai government officials who later invited him to work for Changyu, one of the leading wine companies in the country. There, his expertise on wine continues to be greatly appreciated.

"I match wines with different food, travel around the country to meet customers and business partners, and attend vintages and receptions," he says.

"I have met government officials, pop stars and rich businessmen; some appear on television all the time."

"I used to be slim when I came here, but now, you see," Coughlan says as he pats his belly.

Changyu also represents other wine companies and when Coughlan is not traveling, he is involved with partners like those with Chateau Liversan wines from France and Donelli Sparkling wines from Italy to work out strategies and business plans.

"I spend 15 to 20 days traveling every month, especially before Spring Festival when I work out the packaging for our distributors," he says.

Chinese people started drinking wine only several years ago so Coughlan sometimes finds it hard to tell customers which wine is truly good.

"There are a lot of wine companies coming to China and leaving a wrong impression that wine is an investment rather than a drink. Lafite is the best example. A lot of fake stuff is here, which does a lot of damage to the image of wine," he says.

"Wine is meant to be drunk, not stored. Some wines are meant to be kept for 15 years, but 99 percent is meant to be drunk the time when it is opened."

He also does production innovations. "We are trying to develop a good range of wines. In the year 2006 we developed an ice wine, which is very hard to make. Simply by keeping the wine in the barrel for a little longer or a little shorter, we might get a different flavor."

Considering Chinese customers preferences is also important.

"Cabernet sauvignon is such a strong wine that it may not suit many Chinese people's palate, so we blend in some merlot, Gernischt to soften it down," he says.

"Chinese people love sweet flavors, but are trying to make the wine sweet without adding sugar in it. We do it by reforming the fermentation process."

Coughlan is very patient, as every innovation on his products takes some time to see results. "The market also dictates our products. For example, it took us a little while to introduce the white wine Kelly, because Chinese consumers didn't accept white wine years ago. But now Kelly wine is probably the best-selling white wine in China."

Married to a local Yantai girl in 2007, Coughlan jokes that his wife and his friends are gradually turning him into a Chinese person.

"Since I'm a Yantai son-in-law now, I have to learn people's way of thinking. There are ups and downs in my life, but generally life is great here."

When he is not traveling, Coughlan swims every day and walks his two dogs on the beach, which is right in front of his door.

"The sky is blue, the beach is clean and there is no traffic jam. If you pick up this city and put it in the US, Europe or Australia, I wouldn't be able to afford living there. Yantai is the Riviera of China."

Coughlan says his three favorite things in Yantai are coffee shops, his family and the beach.

During his 10-year-stay in Yantai, Coughlan constantly convinced his friends to come to Yantai. Last year, about 31 wine experts came from Australia from wine companies, wine newspapers and vineyards.

"One of my friends who came from Australia worked in a grape plantation in Yantai. He is very environmentally friendly and doesn't use any fertilizer in his vineyards."

Explaining wines to potential customers is another big part of Coughlan's job.

To raise awareness among consumers, the company held a vintage event in October 2006. It invited 1,000 people but about 8,000 showed up. "The government got involved and we're doing the vintage every year," he says.

During the vintage celebrations, the small city is packed to almost double of its population.

"The best wine will be the next wine I'm going to drink in Yantai," Coughlan says.


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