The "aftertaste" of Hong Kong's 2008 tax cut on wine has surfaced - not only has the sales and trade volume of wine boomed in the years since, but consumers have also become more demanding. This has heralded a need for professional salespeople, who take wine seriously.
"Customers are getting more sophisticated. They come in and know what they want," says James Hepple, head of retail for Watson's Wine Cellar. "That's why [staff] training is important. They have to understand what the clients are talking about."
According to Hepple, every frontline salesperson at Watson's Wine receives on-the-job training during the first few months, followed by lessons from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust that give a deeper understanding of wine - such as the world's leading wine-producing regions and wine-tasting theory. The trust was set up and is supported by the global wine industry.
Training in service, sales, and operational management is also provided to more senior staff. "We always offer [frontline staff] the opportunity to visit overseas vineyards and wineries [in places such as] Australia, France, Spain and New Zealand," Hepple says.
But to Hepple, a veteran wine retailer who arrived in Hong Kong eight years ago, it is not the skills nor knowledge, but the passion and attitude, that are all-important for the professional wine specialist.
"People tend to be good at what they are passionate about and interested in. So if you are just doing it `for a job', it is possibly not the right business for you," he says. "We don't mind if our new staff don't know anything about wine - we can teach this quickly - but it is important that they enjoy talking to people, and have the ability to listen to customers. It's the same for sommeliers, whose job it is to face customers most of the time."
Like most other high-end retailers in Hong Kong, Watson's Wine is being frequented by mainland shoppers. This has prompted the cellar to focus more on the Mandarin skills of its staff. "It's definitely a bonus if the candidate can speak the language, in addition to Cantonese and English," says Hepple, adding that Watson's Wine also provides staff with Mandarin training.
Hepple points out that Lafite, Mouton and Margaux are popular names to mainlanders. But "they also quite like some of the newer wines, such as Penfolds Grange from Australia and Screaming Eagle from the United States," he says.
"They tend to buy big names as it's about 'prestige' and 'face'. So it's not just the quality of wine, but also the name that they are buying," he adds.
"But mainlanders are becoming more sophisticated. Apart from the first-growth Bordeaux, they like other wines as well," says Hepple, who attests that it's exciting being around people who are open to wines.