Wine startup to team up with local wineries to build Korean wine brand
Although wine has gained quite a following in South Korea, compared to choices like soju, beer or makgeolli, customers are still a bit hesitant.
The hefty price tag, along with the wide range of options such as Bordeaux Châteaux, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are not exactly easy tasks for patrons on a budget who want to get tipsy quickly. It’s also more convenient to pick out a brand from the liquor brands of conglomerates.
But now it’s time to bring back creativity in the local wine market, according to Soodevie CEO Sarah Sookyung Henriet.
Soodevie CEO Sarah Sookyung Henriet swirls the wine glass to aerate it. (Kim Young-won / The Korea Herald)
‘Korea has a lot of legal barriers when it comes to alcohol, which is ironic because Koreans love drinking,” said Henriet in a recent interview with The Investor.
“In other countries, there are all kinds of creative and customized services in place, especially around wine,” the Korean-French CEO said, emphasizing the need for relaxed rules for the local industry to grow and be more competitive. Selling wine online, for example, is banned here, but many other governments including China allow the practice.
In 2017, global online wine sales accounted for more than $10 billion, which represented 5 percent of total sales, according to wine tech firm Matcha. The online sales driven by China is forecast to grow further in the coming years.
The regulatory barriers in Korea pose the most formidable challenge for Soodevie. The startup runs a class to teach about matching with Korean food, and coordinates events that could enhance corporate values through vino. It also sells lesser-known but quality wines imported from France, Germany and more. Because of the ban on online sales, however, Soodevie customers need to pay for and pick up their bottles at the startup’s office in southern Seoul.
To get around the red tape, the company plans to team up with local wineries to build Korean wine brands and sell them online. Since 2017, the Korean government has allowed online sales of “traditional liquors,” which are brewed by state-acknowledged masters or made from locally grown ingredients.
Seeing an opportunity there, Henriet has met local wineries across the nation, and found that their wines are not “just good, but really good.”
What they need is proper branding, marketing and selling channels, she added.
There are estimated to be some 200 local wineries in Korea, mostly run by individuals. Although the Korean wineries would not be able to make the same Sauvignon Blanc from France, whose history goes back more than a hundred years, it is possible to make the best Sauvignon Blanc-type wine that is adopted to the Korean soil and climate, the CEO said.
She hinted that the wines in the pipeline will come in two types -- half-sized and full-sized -- and go on sale online in August.
Henriet, who used to work as a foreign policy researcher, emphasized the importance of having a story throughout the interview. “As I worked with diplomats and foreign policymakers, I realized it is important to have a story,” she said. “It is like selling a story, and the product goes with it.”
Soodevie`s signature wine Bomi, which was launched last year to commemorate the first meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April. (Soodevie)
Le Petit Gascoun Blanc, for example, is a French wine made by the Lafiitte brothers living in Gascony, southwest France. The bottle features a boy wearing a red flat cap and a stripped T-shirt in the label, symbolizing the Lafiitte brothers in their youth.
Henriet’s story with wine began when she traveled as a foreign policy researcher in Yanbian which shares its borders with North Korea. In the region, she ran a wine class, upon the request of a Chinese wine importer, and had an “aha moment” while running the class.
“It kind of hit me. Wine is something I’ve always loved, just never thought it would be a business item,” the CEO said.
After having the eureka moment, she packed up her stuff and came back to Korea where she grew up in her younger years to start Soodevie. The name -- a combination of soo (Korean for water) and vie (French for life) -- means “water of life.”
Growing grapes and making wine, which often take years, are a journey for winemakers and wineries, and she is having her own journey with Soodevie, she said.
“For around two years, there have definitely been ups and downs, but I’ve learned a lot,” said the CEO, “I am now ready to disrupt the market!”
By Kim Young-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)