Wine in China : Which part of China’s market is still/untapped/or possesses great potential for Canadian icewine, and what moves is Canada taking to develop the potential?
Ambassador:China has become the most important destination for our icewine, which some say is one of Canada’s greatest calling cards. Indeed, Canadian icewine is the perfect synthesis of our country’s climate, natural bounty, vintner dedication, and wine-making know-how. While China is the largest importer of Canadian icewine, when you look at the size of the export it is still relatively modest at USD $15.3 million. This represents about one fourth of our wine exports. So there is more potential for Canadian icewine in the Chinese market, which continues to grow in popularity alongside the expansion of the middle class here. At present, the market has been mostly in the large coastal cities, especially Beijing and Shanghai, but we think that there are ways to increase our exports, especially as we tap into e-commerce channels such as Yihaodian, Jingdong, TMALL and others.
Another challenge for us is that there is a lot of counterfeit icewine being sold in the Chinese market. This is very disappointing. Canadian icewine is an exquisite and peerless sweet wine, and I hope that Wine in Chinacan help get the message out that counterfeit icewine is running rampant here in China and damaging one of our prized national brands. Chinese consumers should not be deceived – they deserve the real thing! The Embassy has been working hard with Canadian icewine manufacturers to fight against fake Canadian icewine producers. I was in Chengdu in March at the China Food and Drinks Fair where we raised this problem with the show organizer and asked that they make every effort to prevent fake icewine producers from presenting at their fair. All of this to say we hope that more Chinese people will discover our real Canadian icewine, and that’s why it is important to find ways to remove the counterfeit icewine from the market.
Wine in China : Icewine is well known in China now, but table wines remain unfamiliar to the Chinese. What would you say to Chinese consumers about Canadian table wines?
Ambassador:Of course, the Canadian wine industry is still relatively young, so Canada is a new world wine producer; but if I look at what has happened in New Zealand for instance, Canada is following a similar path. We now have two major wine producing regions in Canada; one in British Columbia in the Okanagan Valley, and the other in Ontario on the Niagara Peninsula. But in addition to these, there is also more and more wine being produced in Nova Scotia, which is completely in the eastern part of Canada, and in the province of Quebec. Good progress has been made by Canadian producers to improve the quality of their wine. One way to judge this is to look at all the awards that Canadian wines have received at internationally acclaimed wine competitions. Today, we have the highest quality grapes grown in Canada, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. I think that the challenge for us now is to promote these varieties and make them better known to Chinese consumers. In fact, the wine industry is growing in Canada; we have now more than 670 wineries in operation with almost 1700 grape growers/vineyards producing quality fruit, and the total acreage is about 30,000 acres of vineyards – as I said, mostly in Ontario and British Columbia but with other regions producing more as well. When I look at our table wine exports, China is one of the top markets. For instance, it is the largest market for Canadian sparkling wine with just over CAD $5 million worth of exports last year, which represents about 70 percent of the total Canadian sparkling wine exports globally. I would say that for consumers who are interested in quality wine, they should look at Canadian wines and they will discover that there is a good ratio of quality and price and in fact consumers will be surprised by our relatively inexpensive Canadian products compared to French and other high-end Australian and New Zealand wines.
Wine in China : Do you think it is important for Chinese consumers to learn about VQA to recognize high-quality Canadian wines? What are your suggestions for promoting VQA in China?
Ambassador:I believe it’s important for Chinese consumers to pay attention to this. VQA stands for Vintners Quality Alliance, and was established by the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia to designate Viticultural Areas, regional appellations and sub-appellations, as well as to evaluate eligible wines. Canada VQA is similar to France’s AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) or to Italy’s DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata). It represents a seal of quality. In both Ontario and BC, there are wine authorities, with provincial government official regulators who oversee and enforce this system of qualification by actively ensuring that regulations and standards are respected. It involves laboratory testing and tasting by independent experts and comprehensive label reviews to ensure that wine-makers adhere to rigorous wine-making standards and label integrity. Once a wine earns the VQA seal, it provides consumers with assurance of the wine’s origin, as well as the quality of its production, varietal content and vintage date. Also, the media – and especially the high end sectoral media like Wine in China– can be used to educate the general public about this system. The Embassy has a series of events called “Eat Drink Canada China” to promote Canadian VQA wine, and then we post information on the event including the VQA wine on our Embassy’s Weibo. We also know that Canadian wineries are promoting their VQA label when they participate in events in China, such as the China Food and Drinks Fair held every March, which I mentioned earlier. Some Canadian wine-makers and vineyards are looking at developing a special, unique code that you can look up with your Smartphone, which will tell you exactly when it was produced, by which vineyard/producer, and the details and characteristics of the wine. More and more wineries are looking into this, in fact, and while there are some costs in putting such a system into place, I think it will become popular as it is a very good way to ensure the quality of the wine that consumers are buying and, at the same time, it is very difficult to copy, so it can also help in the fight against counterfeit wines.
Wine in China : What measures should be taken to facilitate/expand bilateral food and wine trade between China and Canada?
Ambassador:I think we have increased our efforts in recent years, and have worked with various partners to promote Canadian food and wine in China. For instance we teamed up with your magazine, Wine in China, to promote Canadian wines. We also showcase our products every year at important fairs, such as the China Fisheries and Seafood Fair in Qingdao, the China Food and Drinks Fair in Chengdu, and at SIAL China and Food and Hospitality China, both in Shanghai. We are also working with major e-commerce platforms to promote Canadian food and wine, such as Yihaodian, Jingdong, TMALL, Juhuasuan and Womai. We are working in partnership with Canadian wineries and numerous other partners on Canadian food festivals in major cities, like Beijing and Xi’an, as well as staging cooking classes and other promotional activities, including the Embassy’s own “Eat Drink Canada China” series of events which I mentioned earlier. Also, for the past several years, our Agriculture and Agri-food Ministers have paid annual visits to China along with significant trade delegations to highlight Canada’s high-quality food, seafood and agricultural products in select Chinese cities. I have accompanied the Ministers on these visits, during which we organize numerous events to further promote our food and wine exports to Chinese distributors and consumers across the country.
As you and your readers may know, the years 2015-2016 have been designated by Canada and China as the years of people-to-people and cultural exchange, and, I believe that promoting and enjoying Canadian food and wine together is a fine way to mark this special year. I participated in the Embassy’s fourth “Eat Drink Canada China” media event in Chengdu, in March, and promoted Canadian wines at the China Food and Drinks Fair along with 17 Canadian wineries. Later this spring, we organized a half-day cooking class in Beijing to raise the profile of Canadian food among Chinese media and consumers and as you know, we partnered with you – Wine in China – in staging our fifth “Eat Drink Canada China” at the Embassy’s Official Residence on June 6. Also, our Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food, Lawrence MacAulay was in Xi’an for the G20 Agriculture Ministers Meeting and we expect that he’ll come back to China in November to attend the China Fisheries & Seafood fair in Qingdao to further drive support for Canadian agricultural and food products there. So we hope that we will be able to continue to seize all opportunities, including continuing to work with you, attending fairs, and working with e-commerce companies to increase the awareness and appreciation of Canadian food and wine among Chinese consumers.
Wine in China : Among the places you’ve visited in China, which cities would you recommend to your Canadian friends?
Ambassador:I would say that China is a big and beautiful country with lots and lots to see. As someone who has lived in Beijing, I know there is much to discover in Beijing itself, so visitors should certainly take all that’s on offer here. And then within a short distance from here, I would recommend taking in one or more weekend excursions. Pingyao is lovely as a well preserved walled city. Another place I’d recommend and where I have visited many times is Chengde, the former summer resort of the emperors. It’s cooler than Beijing in the summer so that’s obviously a very good time to go and enjoy its beautiful temples. Another region that I find very interesting is Datong, where you can visit the caves. But, of course, there are many, many other places to visit. If one has more time, I very much enjoyed visiting Guilin in Guangxi Autonomous Region, and in Yunnan, Dali is a beautiful city. Despite the fact that I have spent 11 years in China, just two years ago I visited Hangzhou for the first time, and discovered why it is viewed as one of the most beautiful cities. West Lake, of course, is a must see. So I would highly recommend a visit to Hangzhou. And if one has even more time and is able to get there, I’d recommend Lhasa in Tibet. I drove from Lhasa to Xigazê; it was stunning scenery. In the wintertime – and usually Canadians are not afraid of cold – a visit to Harbin for the Ice Festival is lots of fun. There are beautiful sculptures to enjoy and it’s a well-organized festival. All this to say, there are many, many beautiful and diverse places all across China. One other thing I might add is that it is easy and pleasant to travel around China by high-speed rail; it’s reliable, usually less expensive that air travel, and a great way to discover the country.
Wine in China:I saw on twitter that you demonstrated Canadian beef cooking on a festival. Do you love cooking and what is your favorite dish at home?
Ambassador:Well, I do enjoy cooking, but unfortunately I don’t have much time to devote to it now. When I was a student, my cooking abilities were very limited so I took a cooking class to improve and diversify my cooking skills. This worked out very well: I enjoyed it and my cooking improved! In a way, I look at cooking as a chemistry class; it’s a matter of having the right ingredients, the right mix, and the right sequencing s – then you can come up with spectacular combinations! Every year, I cook for my wife on her birthday, and the dinner is a surprise every year. I pour her a glass of wine and she relaxes in the living room, while I work away in the kitchen. I usually do a first course, in which I like to use avocado, and I have a few good soup recipes – one if which is a French onion soup – that my wife really enjoys. I do a few main courses well – one I like to prepare is pasta with shrimps and scallops, or with sausages. And of course, I always bake a cake. In the summer, I like preparing salads; it’s a great way to take advantage of the season’s fresh bounty, and especially pleasant when you have the chance to eat outside. I will get back to cooking more when I retire and have more time to myself.
Wine in China : With the severe food safety problems faced in China, Canadian food resources are very competent, including seafood, pork, beef, flour and so on. How do you view this opportunity?
Ambassador:I would say that Canada is a great source of safe food and a reliable supplier. We have a cold climate, which means a natural resting period for the soil and inhospitable for a lot of pests. Indeed Canada’s climate, geography, and environment provide a natural advantage for safe food and drinks production. Canada is a very large country with a temperate climate and with a great amount of agricultural land. In fact, we are one of the top five food exporters globally. Also, we take pride in the high quality of our food, and we apply the same standards to the food we export and the food we consume in Canada. We have rigorous standards, which apply to meat, seafood, beverages, and all agri-food products in general. In terms of food safety, we have in place laws and regulations that guarantees world-class production standards for our agri-food industry. In fact, many sectoral standards exceed international standards. So for people who want to have quality, they can be sure that our products reflect our country’s dedication to excellence and our deep commitment to safety, quality, and environmental responsibility. And importantly, we are committed to providing excellent agricultural, food and wine products to meet the needs of the growing Chinese market.
Wine in China : How does your former international experience serve your posting in Beijing?
Ambassador:Being a career diplomat, you develop some skills and competencies that can be applied to many countries. In my case, this is my third time in China and fourth if I include Hong Kong. This has helped me to get a better understanding of Chinese culture and history. I would say that this is a big advantage, because I think that I have a better idea of China than if I were coming here for the first time. Plus, I have known some Chinese officials from my previous postings, someone like Yang Jiechi who is the State Councillor now, is someone I knew when he was Director-General for North American and Oceanic Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I would say that this is the main advantage: a good familiarity with the country. That said, China has changed very rapidly over the many years I have known China, so it’s been good for me to have this general background, but you have to keep learning all the time because things keep evolving.
Wine in China : What is the biggest challenge for working in China as an Ambassador?
Ambassador:I would say that time management is a big issue because it’s a very busy job and, as a result, you work long hours. I also wish I had better access to the senior leadership, because if I compare with the Chinese Ambassador in Ottawa, it’s much easier for him to meet with ministers, and people in the Prime minister’s office than it is here. I think that better access could help the development of the bilateral relationship.
Wine in China : What are the improvements that China has attained within three years that you are excited with?
China has become a very modern country, especially in the coastal regions. I am very envious of high-speed trains and the rail network that keeps growing. As I mentioned earlier, in my view it is one of the most convenient and most pleasant ways to travel. Also what struck me when I came back four years ago is how vibrant the art scene has become: there is very interesting art being created here in China. In terms of changing attitudes on the part of the government, I am encouraged that there is now a greater focus and dedication to addressing pollution. I hope this effort continues and Canada is already working hard in this area, by introducing Canadian companies with first-rate clean technology. It is clear that the environment has become a priority for the Chinese government and this is very encouraging.
Wine in China : Did you grow up playing ice hockey? What role do sports play in a Canadian’s life?
Yes, I grew up playing ice hockey and loved it!. Of course, now Ambassador:In Canada we see the impacts of climate change, so the winters are not as cold as they used to be. When I grew up, winters were long and cold, and I come from a large family so my mother would send us to play outside. Ice hockey is Canada’s national sport, and so when I was young, every boy – and now, more and more girls these days – played ice hockey. My father would build an ice rink behind the house, and we would go and play as soon as we finished doing our homework and on the weekends we would play with friends. We would also play in organized leagues, and in my day, we all hoped to play one day in the National Hockey League, which is the top league. We all had our hockey heroes and idols, and hoped to become as good as them.
Then and now, winter sports for Canadians are very important. In fact my advice for foreign diplomats when they come to Canada to work is to take up winter sports. It could be skating, skiing, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing. One must embrace and enjoy the winter months and, if you dress properly, the cold is easy to manage. Otherwise if you don’t enjoy the outdoors, winter will seem very long and miserable. In fact travelling to northern Canada in the wintertime can be a fabulous experience and it’s almost guaranteed that you will see the northern lights which are a beautiful phenomenon. So there are many advantages to winter: you have beautiful blue skies, lots of light because of the reflection off the snow, and playing outside can be lots of fun. I played ice hockey until two years ago, but put my skates on again in January this year, when we had a group of players from my favourite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens, who came to play and give hockey clinics here in Beijing: I was really thrilled to play with them! Now, I try to exercise every second day. I go to the gym and do mostly elliptical machine for 40 minutes, or the rowing machine. And when I have the chance on weekends, I like to ride my bicycle. I’ve had the same bicycle for 35 years, and it has served me well and in many countries. I like bike riding because you can see a lot, and it’s faster than walking, so it’s a great exercise and gives you a sense of liberty and freedom. So I try to do it regularly and it’s been a terrific way to discover Beijing.