I first stumbled across Cork Culture while doing some preliminary research on biodynamic wines for work. Cork Culture is fascinating, as they are surprisingly one of the few wine merchants that have an abundance of educational material online on their website and also an impressive social media presence despite being an extremely small outfit in Hong Kong.
While the majority of wine merchants aim for the traditional fine wine market, Cork Culture deviates and establishes their own niche in natural, organic and biodynamic wines. Ian has shown Hong Kong drinkers plainly that there are an abundance of delicious options from smaller producers that are to be found apart from the traditional areas of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
I mainly worked as a journalist or writer for, like, most of the past few years.
How is that going?
It’s interesting, it evolves a lot. Um, I’ve done everything from like, working as a writer at Time Out – I started it of as an intern there - and then I worked at a food magazine in Beijing. Just to summarise I did English in uni…
Was that in U.K.?
Yes but I always like food and wine. So then after I applied to journalism school and I didn’t get in so I said ‘Ok fuck it im just going to go and apply to magazines around the world.’ And then I applied to one in Beijing; I didn’t speak any mandarin, moved there and tried that. I ended up staying for two years and started working at a food magazine [where] they had no wine writer and no one spoke English. So then I went to lots and lot of wine dinners I was then basically meeting lots of wine makers and trying lots of wine and that’s basically how I started in wine.
So through journalism mostly and now you run Cork Culture. How did that come about?
I moved back to Hong Kong in 2012. I worked at Cru magazine. I didn’t know how to get started in a proper wine job being that I didn’t know that much about wine because even though I had worked 2 and half years in food and wine in Beijing, there was no one to teach me. Like I’ll go to events and speak to winemakers – it’s all self taught. At Cru every month we’ll organize like panel tastings and then we can choose subjects and topics with sommeliers. So there will be lots of people to teach so if we wanted to do young blanc de blanc NV champagne then we’ll think about who knows the most about it in Hong Kong and then while you're drinking with them they’ll teach you stuff.
So you’ve always had a different type of learning. Did you do any WSET classes?
I did it I forgot why; it was free my company paid for it and I did it up to level 3. I didn’t like the style of teaching I finished it and I don’t want to do it anymore.
I think it is a foundation and if you do strictly that you wont go very far with it…
I mean I know a lot of people who love it. I just don’t like how they teach how I would prefer learning by just tasting a lot.
I guess you're pretty driven…
In my own way, I guess so. For me it’s research driven. For me I spend a lot of time reading blogs then I spend my time hunting them down.
You’re really good at self studying? Probably having done journalism helps, the background the research...
IW: I just read and read a lot. I just go to every region and try to find what is most exciting. When I was working in Cru I found that after all that writing, the magazine is ultimate is print and no one really reads print. I felt very useless to write because no one will ever try the wines you write about unless youre an established voice like Jancis Robinson or any critics. It was just a local magazine with arguably not enough credibility. Eventually after I started tasting lots and lots of wines at tastings and other events - you know like there’s a wine dinner every night in Hong Kong. We’ll go to wine dinners all the time. There will be a few wines at each tasting that I’ll really really like and then I want to find out why I love those wines. I’ll talk to the winemaker and research and I find out that all of them were working organically or biodynamically or naturally. That is the premise of Cork Culture. Then I knew I loved this type of wine but I didn’t want to put it as a black or white thing. I drink a lot of conventional wine, like sustainable you would say [but] wines that I‘m passionate about just happens to be organic. I’m not a strict natural wine person as you can see from my portfolio it’s a mixture.
Yeah it’s very varied!
I have a few natural producers [and] I have sustainable producers too as long as they work well.
I think that a lot of wine makers in Burgundy I know everyone talks about Leroy and biodynamic wines. You do see producers that say they don’t go fully organic because they think it limits them in some regards and they want to have that flexibility.
It’s ultimately how you tell when you visit them or rely others who visit them because there is tons of tricks and I don’t distrust any winemakers. If you meet people there is certain feeling and if you work a certain way it matters a lot to me.
You’re on to something very differnet. I would say Hong Kong is very traditional - I mean you see mostly Bordeaux -
It’s changed a lot.
I know new world, old world but it’s still quite traditional and predictable.
It was worse four years ago. It’s changed a lot. It’s cheaper now. We were the first to sell biodynamic wines but um, La Cabane was for only natural. But how Cork Culture started out because I wanted to make a single market place for all biodynamic wines. All the importers have a few good biodynamic. There’s too much overstock in Hong Kong and what happens is that people just dump wine and so I would just source from my favourite importers and put them all online. At the time nobody had a good website. They were bad and we started of with our website.
You do see people in other cities places like London and New York, you know I hate that word ‘millennial’, who are going for more interesting funkier stuff. Do you think that’s going to happen to Hong Kong eventually?
What usually happens in Hong Kong follows everyone else five or six years later, like craft beer and poke and all the food trends. Hong Kong is very different and the buyers are very rich. The chinese likes to buy the best, I mean what’s perceived to be the best so then they I don’t think you’ll see a trend where natural wine sweeps Hong Kong. Those who have the interest and passion to buy wine are quite wealthy, they're not encouraged to explore cheaper options. When I first started the company I didn’t even bother talking to rich clients because you can sell as much muscadet as you want but they're not going to be passionate about muscadet. One problem is that you have a barrier where wine lovers are generally quite well off in Hong Kong…
Do you think more young people will get into wine? I mean coffee is now the craze, coffee shops everywhere, more brooklynesque joints but do you think down the road more people will gravitate more to wine bars?
I think one factor is rent, that people will not gamble on natural wine bars except for La Cabane which is great but I know a lot of similar mind importers who do natural wine actually have a good reach of bars in Central and Saiwan. We’re actually quite and small and close to each other so we have a push for organic wine but again not really to a young audience. Not a 20 year old but there has been some changes so far.
Do you think there will more changes?
Sure yeah but it’ll take a lot more effort. There’s a lot of perception in Hong Kong that only Burgundy is good and it takes a lot of time and effort to push. You need the right type of people to share those type of wines.
Fundamentally because of how Hong Kong’s wine market is built compared to New York and London that there will be a lot more unpredictability? Can the same apply to China say? As you say Hong Kong is very different for young people; do you think things will also be very different in China?
I don’t really know, China is a huge place. There’s less preconceptions so that’s an advantage I would say. I know craft beer is doing well there. China will be the biggest wine producer in a decade or something like twenty years. What happens is that if the wines are not old enough you can make drinkable enough natural wines in certain places that might be decently cheap. So if someone makes natural wine in china that could be fun. These are all longer term projects.
From working with Mainland Chinese customers and Hong Kong customers, I feel like Chinese customers are more willing to experiment. Is it just because they don’t have the traditional perceptions of wine as built into them as in Hong Kong ?
I don’t know, I mean I will say that generally I haven’t found much experimentation here. I mean there is that part that there is too much risk. Restaurants need to pay a ton of rent [and] there’s not much innovation.
So how did you meet all these others importers?
Just email and ultimately we all like each other’s wines and we all of us we love drinking. We are all wine lovers and you see people’s Instagrams and you wonder how can I find that bottle. I mean in Hong Kong the good thing is that it’s massive here are so many importers and it’s easy to find a new one each month. The problem is not the quality but the gateway.
Do you think the problem lies with the risk-adverse overall mood of Hong Kong due to rent and bottom line of the company? F&B is very hard to do in Hong Kong so do you think sommeliers should be the ones leading the way for consumer education or exposure?
Yeah but Hong Kong again is one of those weird markets where Watson’s Wine is 90% of the wine stores here and everything is so convenient here where everyone gets their wines delivered so theres not that many places that are retail spots. So people pay for their experiences and that’s why LQV and La Cabane are so great because they always offer new experiences. Sommeliers are going to introduce new arrivals for people to try. Like LQV had this great feature on old muscadet like I would bring my wine friends over and ask if they have tried 10 year old muscadet and it’s the greatest thing ever. It costs like 300 bucks but then you would need a friend or a guide to push you.
Hong Kong is great in that there are a lot of wine groups and wine clubs.
Wine groups – that’s how people spread their passion.
Have you talked to or approached any wine groups?
I do drink and talk with a few wine groups who are my friends but theyre very burgundy focused. I have said before people do believe they have to drink the best all the time and I don’t really like that thinking. It’s very counterproductive thinking for everything. In Hong Kong its like that, you want the best wine, you want the best school, the best restaurant, best things but people are so focused getting the best that theyre not enjoying other things. They think wine is not a food or product. Wineries like DRC why they're so good for so many years – it’s easy to say they have the best terroir or have the best winemaker but that’s also the perpetuating a kind of myth. You can make great wine anywhere in the world, of course the conditions have to be right - like not farmland in Hong Kong - but when the conditions are right you can make world class Italian or Croatian wines. It’s just good viticulture is at the heart of it for me. Good viticulture but everything else good - winemaking good - grapes are everything. But people don’t think like that, there's something magical about Bordeaux and Burgundy that’s a myth pushed a lot by movies, by sommeliers, by lot of things, which I don’t think is true.
So you're saying Hong Kong people are too easily swayed by good marketing and branding versus the actual fundamentals?
Yes. If you drink a good aged Beaujolais and blind it against a similarly priced Burgundy, they’ll might be just as good.
So where do you see yourself with Cork Culture? You said you’re freelance right now? As a photographer?
I used to work in social media [for] the largest youtube photography site Digital Rev - have you heard of it?
No sorry -
It’s a really big website that blew up six months so most of my work will be writing and social media but I do love wine. I’ll keep supplying our customers and our core business with friends to see how we can best promote. I don’t want to be too competitive at the top level. What I mean is that we’re not a very large company so our marketing budgets are nonexistent. I would say I would share our wines but the best is to make connections with other trade partners.
What with your limited budgets and constraints I think you’ve done an amazing job of pushing lot of educational material out there—beautiful Instagram by the way. Are you using that as your platform to educate and advocate?
I hope to provide value so I know a lot of Facebook pages push sales through post but we never do that. We use emails and then for Instagram and things, we just want to tell the stories about the winemakers. For a lot of the winemakers I only bring a 100 or 200 bottles at the end of the day, so there’s no real problem for me to sell out 1 label per day. I just want people to try the wines. We bring weird stuff like Solera, Chenins, skin contact – we also bring in very good Northern Rhone producers, Rieslings and everything. I just love the wine and it would be a disservice to the winemakers if I don’t get it out there somehow.
Thank you very much Ian again for speaking with me!
Know any other local young winos that are willing to share their wine experience here? Let me know in the comments or via email thisyoungwino[at]gmail[dot]com.