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Martial Arts Exponent, Drummer, MBA Holder & Fine Wine Merchant

Story & Photos By Ch'ng Poh Tiong

In February 2008, Hong Kong removed its 40% duty on wine. Overnight, the Special Administrative Region of China transformed itself into a magnet for wines from around the world.

While Singapore has found it hard to compete with Hong Kong as a wine hub, this does not mean it is not an important market. In fact, one Hong Kong wine establishment even set up a Singapore distribution branch in 1997, and opened a wine shop there.

Ponti Wine Cellar, Ground Floor, 204A Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068640 (tel: (65) 67 33 03 69), is located in an historic part of Singapore where early Chinese immigrants settled. The wine shop is designed into an old conservation house, complete with sky well.

The proprietor of Ponti Wine Cellar is Antonio KOO, whose family founded Shui Hing Departmental Store in Hong Kong. Although the chain no longer exists, KOO continues to be in the wine business. In fact, he used to look after the wine section of his father's stores.

Question: When you were growing up as a teenager, what did you want to become or do with your life?

As a teenager, I was undecided and unsure as to the industry I wished to be in. However, I knew I wanted to run my own business one day and be very successful at it. I even thought about linking my future career with music as I played the drums for some years, jamming with friends and I was also very active in my high school band.

Question: When your career started, was it in wine or was it a later move?

After university in 1986, I first started working with Macy's Department Store in New York's Herald Square. I went through their executive training program and requested to work in Macy's food hall as the food business always appealed to me. I was then assigned to manage the groceries section there.

I enjoyed it tremendously and worked super hard as it was Christmas time. The following year, I returned to Hong Kong and thought about joining other fields.

However, my father's department store business in Hong Kong had a food department and a wine corner in the main store's basement. My natural inclination was to give it a try.

The wine and spirits corner was around 250 square feet, and it was part of the supermarket. The inventory was made up of roughly 150 different wines and 200 spirits and liqueurs. It was still the Cognac days!

In 1987, wine in Asia was in its infancy. Formal wine courses were non-existent and it was close to impossible to find good wine books or videos. After six months of reading, tasting and learning from suppliers, I started to develop a real passion for wines. I increased and improved the selection and offered very competitive prices at the wine corner.

Sales then increased by over 70% within months. Then I expanded the wine section to double its size. The following year, in 1988, we incorporated Ponti Wine Cellars and opened our second wine store. Following that, we expanded into wholesale distribution of wine and food. In 1997, we expanded to Singapore with wine distribution first and subsequently retail.

Question: What did you study academically?

I obtained my BA in Economics from Tufts University, and my MBA from Boston University.

Question: Your customers in Singapore and those in Hong Kong, what common tastes do they share and what different ones do they have?

I always believe food plays a significant role in influencing wine preferences and of course vice-versa too. For their daily consumption, I find that many of our Singapore customers prefer wines that are more full-bodied and more intense in style than their counterparts in Hong Kong.

This may be due to the more spicy and stronger flavored cuisines available in Singapore. However, once you get to the connoisseur level, it is definitely very similar and they all go for the great Bordeaux, Burgundies, and the top boutique wineries from all the key wine producing countries.

Question: Running businesses in Hong Kong and Singapore, what are the advantages and disadvantages in both places?

The wine culture in both cities are extremely well-developed. Wine connoisseurs are abundant and they are extremely knowledgeable. Competition amongst wine merchants is absolutely fierce in both cities.

A major change took place in February 2008 when the Hong Kong Government decided to abolish the wine duty. This immediately led to a huge influx of wine merchants and wine related companies from all over the world opening up for business in Hong Kong, including auction houses, brokers, educators, and logistic companies.

This is great for wine consumers, but a brutal time for most wine merchants as the unrelenting competition continues unabated and I expect the industry will come to a consolidation phase within the next few years. Hong Kong's proximity to China is a definite advantage as mainland Chinese are consuming more and more wines and with also a keen interest in premium wines.

Hong Kong, with its duty-free wine policy, has managed to become the key platform and facilitator for wine trading in Asia. A disadvantage for both cities in operating a wine business is the continuous difficulty in finding good sales people with good wine knowledge.

Question: The structure of your different companies, can you explain what they are variously involved in?

In Singapore and Hong Kong, we operate wholesale businesses focusing on distributing wines to hotels, restaurants and club houses. We also operate retail stores in both cities promoting wines to private consumers. We carry out many tastings and wine events at our retail stores promoting the various brands that we carry. The wholesale and retail business complement each other tremendously well.

Question: One of your pastimes is martial arts. When did your interest in that start?

I started learning martial arts when I was 13, learning from a great Master by the name of Mr. Guo Yun-Ping, who teaches Wing Chun (Guang-zhou style), and also the internal styles of Tai Chi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and Xing Yi Quan from the Fu style (Fu Zhen Sung).

Question: What different forms of martial arts do you practise?

I emphasize my practice on Wing Chun, Tai Chi Quan, Ba Gua Zhang, and Xing Yi Quan and the focus is for health rather than sparring. I also do the pole and swords.

Question: And your interest in music, how long ago was that. Your favourite singers/groups?

My interest developed since I was 15, when my uncle give me my first record album and it was from the group Chicago. Some of my favorite groups include Sergio Mendes, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Chicago, Santana, George Benson, Carole King and Carpenters.

Question: Can you name three to five of your favourite wine pairings with Chinese cuisine?

A wonderful Pinot Noir with Peking duck, a great Barolo with suckling pig, a grand cru Bordeaux with Shanghai Style braised pork (Hongshao Rou or Yuan Ti) , and a sweet style Riesling with Teochew yam paste dessert (ou nee).

All Rights Reserved · The Wine Review · 2013