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[Herald Interview] Asia’s first Master of Wine empowers Shinsegae’s wine push

Retail giant bets big on ‘recession-proof’ high-end wines

May 1, 2024 - 16:22 By Shim Woo-hyun
Jeannie Cho Lee, the first Asian Master of Wine, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at a wine store within the Gangnam branch of Shinsegae Department Store in Banpo, southern Seoul, on April 22. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Jeannie Cho Lee, the first Asian Master of Wine, has joined hands with Shinsegae Group, the Korean retail giant that is recently making a big push to lead the nation’s soaring luxury wine market.

Lee earned the wine industry’s top honor in 2008. Being a member of the exclusive community of 417 Masters of Wine globally, she has built an extensive network within the industry and collaborated with numerous companies such as Watson’s Wine, Ficofi and Berry Brothers & Rudd. Currently, she teaches wine management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

“As people are aging, they drink less, but they drink better,” Lee told The Korea Herald in a recent interview held at Burgundy & Wine, a wine store within the Gangnam branch of Shinsegae Department Store in southern Seoul.

“I noticed an increasing number of Korean consumers are asking for ‘unique and special, small quantity items.’ Wine lovers here are also becoming much more sophisticated.”

Through its collaboration with Lee, Shinsegae will open a new store dedicated to introducing premium wines within the Gangnam department store in June.

Some of the exclusive wines to be introduced include those from Harlan Estate, one of the top cult wineries in Napa Valley, California.

Shinsegae’s premium push comes as rare, high-end wines are selling better amid an overall slowdown in wine sales recently. According to customs data, the country’s wine imports last year dropped by 26.2 percent to 56,542 tons from 76,575 tons in 2021.

But Shinsegae said that its sales of pricier wines over 200,000 won ($145) have surged 20 percent in the first three months of this year alone compared to the same period last year.

“Premiumization does not always mean ‘pay more,’” Lee said. “Premiumization also means that customers demand a certain level of quality and want to understand the authenticity of wine products they consume. Such a trend is more widely seen among younger consumers who have more access to wine information on the internet.”

Her partnership with Shinsegae, she said, aims to introduce artisan wines that satisfy sophisticated wine lovers who want to acknowledge how the wines have been sourced, the reasons why they are special, who the producers are, and the historical and cultural aspects associated with each product.

Regarding the Korean wine market’s overall outlook, Lee said there’s still room for growth despite lingering challenges on taxes and logistics.

“We’ve only tapped the surface of the inherent demand (so far). I think we just don’t know what’s the (real) demand unless the country has a culture that everyone has easy access to a variety of wines,” she added.