Our most recent talk over at sibling blog Grape Wall of China was with Mike Signorelli of Signature Wine Club, who discussed some of the ins and outs of this relatively new field in the country’s wine scene.
From backboards to bottles, you’ve shifted from a career at NBA China to creating a wine club. How did that come about?
When I left the NBA during the player lockout, I was offered a couple of consulting projects with two successful entrepreneurs who were looking to grow their respective businesses in China. I was keen on starting my own business, but working with these gentlemen really gave me the “entrepreneurial bug”. I spent a few months looking at business models I thought could work in China, and products and services in demand, and decided to launch an O2O [online-to-offline] subscription wine club.
How does the club work?
If you are from the West you would compare us to a “wine of the month club”. Each month our experts select six different wines that we then send directly to our subscribers.
Sigwine has two subscription levels — “silver” and “gold”. People can sign up for a flat monthly fee, or purchase a three-, six- or twelve-month subscriptions. Subscribers can also choose between receiving two or three bottles per month.
In addition to the wine, we offer detailed education and tasting notes about each bottle chosen. Subscribers may reorder the wines that they like at prices below suggested retail. We also have the occasional “flash sale” for interesting wines we find in the market.
Most people sign up via sigwine.com and pay a flat monthly fee via credit card, either foreign or Union Pay. More and more people are purchasing via WeChat and using theWeChat wallet. Since the world has gone mobile and people want to do everything on their phones, we will introduce the Sigwine APP for iOS and Android next month, which we are very excited about!
Who tends to join the club, and why, and is it different from what you first expected?
Our subscribers are roughly 65 percent foreigners or people in mixed marriages. Most people sign up for themselves. The trend for many new subscribers is to stick their toe in the water and try two bottles for six months. We have a 90 percent-plus renewal rate, and after their initial subscription expires members typically upgrade to three bottles a month.
When looking at our client base, after just over a year in business, we were hoping to have a higher percentage of local subscribers, but unless they have been introduced by a friend, they have been challenging to sign up. The reasons being our model is new, they don’t choose auto deduction on their credit cards, and there are trust issues within the local market — even with a money-back guarantee, people have a hard time paying up front and believing that we will send great wine every month!
Recently we have had a number of subscribers purchase subscriptions for friends, as birthdays, wedding, Christmas and other gifts. In addition, we have a few corporate accounts. They send bottles to clients across China.
How do you guys pick the wines each month?
I thought the most fun part of the job would be the wine selection but actually it’s the hardest. Each month we receive 12 to 15 bottles from multiple wine importers and distributors and we are very lucky if we can find three bottles that meet the quality and taste standards within our “silver” level budget. We have a panel of experts that make recommendations and approve each bottle. Fongyee Walker, one of China’s top wine educators, leads our tasting panel in Beijing. Finding wine for our premium “gold” subscription is a lot easier, as our experts have tasted most premium wines.
If you could pick one month’s wine you liked the best, which one would it be and why?
That is a really tough question because I have truly enjoyed the wines selected by the panel as well as a couple of “special” flash sales, including one for 7 Deadly Zins. But the one wine that sticks out is Bull’s Blood from Hungary. It’s a delicious wine with a very interesting background
We were fortunate enough to receive a very special price from the wine makers so that we could share this wine with our subscribers. The wine is fantastic and retails for rmb700 per bottle. We were able to offer it to our subscribers for much less and they responded by reordering more than 600 bottles!