Fact is Filipinos aren’t wine drinkers. We’re more likely to buy into the local microbrew movement, sip Don Papa rum, or appreciate craft cocktails in hidden-away speakeasies. We, of course, appreciate the finer things, but there are a number of reasons why most Filipinos haven’t made drinking wine a regular habit.
We spoke with Christopher Quimbo, the 30-year-old president and general manager of Calabria, the largest wine producer in the Philippines. As the maker of the popular Novellino Wines, it’s his family business’s objective to make wines that Filipinos can appreciate. And if you’re into wine, you’ll appreciate his insights into Filipino tastes and the complexity behind making the Philippines a country of wine connoisseurs.
Why don’t we drink more wine?
“You have to put wine consumption in the Philippines in context. The average European drinks about one bottle of wine per week. In the United States, it’s about one bottle per month, and if you venture on to Australia and New Zealand it’s about two bottles a month. In the Philippines, it’s 0.07 liters per capita, which means the average person is having about a glass of wine per year. You can look at that and say there’s no opportunity here, or you can say there’s a huge opportunity.
There’s this story of two shoe salesmen who go to Africa. The first person sees that no one’s wearing shoes, and he thinks to himself, ‘Let’s not enter this market. No one’s wearing shoes here.’ The second person also sees that no one’s wearing shoes, he sees the same thing but says, ‘there’s a huge opportunity to sell shoes in this market.’
Of course we see the latter. We see that people want to drink wine in the Philippines but they don’t. And we think it’s because of three simple reasons. The taste of wine is very new to Filipinos. In Europe wine has existed for hundreds, even thousands of years, and so over generations they’ve developed a taste for it. In the Philippines, we’re the first to really introduce wine to the Filipino people.
Price: the average salary is about 5,000 dollars a year, so you can’t sell 100 dollar bottles of wine. It has to be affordable, so we had to find a way to make it affordable for the average Filipino.
Familiarity: if you walk into a Rustan’s, it’s really overwhelming. There are so many different wines to choose from and 99% of people think, if it’s expensive it’s good, if it’s cheap it’s bad. Of course, that’s not true at all, there’s so much marketing behind wine.”
How do you make Filipinos appreciate wine?
“One of the main reasons why Filipinos don’t like drinking wine is that they don’t like the taste. It’s bitter. A perfect example of this is our spaghetti. Try bringing an Italian to Jollibee and serving him spaghetti. Here, that’s what the market wants. That’s how people consume spaghetti. So that’s what we do, we give people something that they want.
Our competition are the imported brands that are coming in, and there’s more and more of them every single year. People keep asking, ‘aren’t you worried about this huge influx of new wine brands?’ But if that were the case why is it that we continue to outgrow them? It just goes to show that wine is a regional product. And while wine consumption in the Philippines is still low, it’s growing about 8 to 9 % a year, and we’re growing faster than that. That means we’re outpacing growth, despite the increased competition.
If you go to Italy, you won’t find Italians drinking French wines, and if you go France, you won’t find the French drinking Italian wines. If you go to different regions in France, like Bordeaux, you’re only drinking Bordeaux blends like Cabernet and Merlot, while if you’re in the Northeast of France, in Burgundy, you’re drinking Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. People drink wines which were grown in their region specifically. Wine really is a regional product.
In the Philippines, we can’t grow grapes [for winemaking] but we make a wine that’s tailor fit for the profile of the Philippine palate, and that’s sweet, that’s sparkling, that’s lower alcohol.”
How do you make wines fit for the local tastes?
“When you look at a grape and consider what makes it good for winemaking, it’s very specific. It’s the tannin content, the acidity, the color of the grape juice. These are all things you can add. For example, if you lack tannin, you can add grape skin and get the tannin you want for the grape juice. We knew that Filipinos wanted something sweet. [So, to make a sweet wine] we couldn’t allow the yeast to eat all the sugar from the grape juice, we had to leave residual sugar left over from the grape juice so that the product would still be sweet. It’s actually more difficult to make than a dry wine.
Christopher, with his father Vincent Quimbo
The analogy we like to use is that winemaking is like making steak. If you have a really good cut of meat, you don’t really do anything to it and let the meat speak for itself. What if you can’t afford filet mignon? What can you do to make a cheaper cut of meat delicious? You can marinate it, you can add salt and pepper, you can tenderize it. You can do all these things, so by the time you cook it you can make it taste delicious. That’s exactly what we do to our grapes.
We consider ourselves a high intervention winery, which puts more pressure on you than it would if you had access to really expensive grape juice. We could do that too, we could make expensive wines, but that’s not what the Philippines wants. Our objective is to make the Philippines a wine-drinking culture, it’s to fulfil the unfulfilled aspirations of the Filipino people. They want to drink wine, but they’re not able to, so how do we do it? Do we force it with a product they don’t like or do we give them something they actually want?
Wine is very intimidating to people and you can fool your customers easily. There exists this high aspiration of wine, which means there’s a huge opportunity to mark it up, but we want make it available to people. We make a good product, we make it at a fair price, and we make it for the Philippine palate. We want to give them something they like.”