Chateau de Pic, a Chinese-owned Bordeaux estate in Cadillac, has been sued by its local employees after abruptly firing its staff and failing to pay five months of salary, bringing the winery’s poor management and dire financial situation into the forefront.
According to local French reports, three of the winery’s employees received a termination letter written in Chinese on June 17 without prior notice. Additionally, they claimed they haven’t been paid for over five months from the financially strained company, whose financial woes were again worsened due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The lawsuit filed last month in Bordeaux Labour Court exposed an uncomfortable situation involving many Chinese investors who rushed to snatch French estates due to Bordeaux’s popularity but often failed to sustain their business.
Liao Xiaoyan, a wine consultant living in France, told Chinese wine media Lookvin that many of her friends bought wineries overseas but 90% ended in failure, in part because of lack of profit return and discrepancies between expectation and reality.
For Chateau de Pic (柏阁), located in Entre-deux-Mers region its problems far preceded the recent lawsuit in France.
The over 700-year-old Chateau was purchased by Ningxia-based Yifeng Group, which specializes in spirits distribution, particularly the popular Chinese baijiu such as Kweichow Moutai and Wuliangye, in 2012 when imported wine was on the rise mainly driven by French wines.
Wu Shourui, founder of Yifeng originally planned to purchase a 1855 grand cru classe estate but the thought quickly evaporated after learning it’s virtually impossible for a Chinese wine novice without having strong financial backings, he recalled in an interview with Chinese media Huanqiu.
Instead, he started looking for lesser known estates in Bordeaux and bought the 42-ha Chateau de Pic in Cadillac of Cotes de Bordeaux for an undisclosed amount, an estate that he compared to the storied Petrus winery for sharing similar soil composition.
Within two years, Wu was ready to launch the Bordeaux-made wine in China, its most profitable market. In 2014, Yifeng splurged RMB 118 million (US$16.8 million) on advertisements on one of the country’s most popular food documentary series, A Bite of China (舌尖上的中国).
In 2018, it ramped up its marketing spending and spent another RMB 60 million (US$8.55 million) as the sole advertiser for all three seasons when they are re-aired. But the third season, dogged by rumors of delayed launch, was met with lukewarm reception compared with highly critically reviewed first two seasons and disrupted Yifeng’s whole marketing campaign for Chateau de Pic.
In 2018 when the third season was finally aired, heavy spending on marketing and overstock already spelled financial troubles for the Ningxia company.
The sponsorship was largely derided by critics for failing to launch the wine brand’s success in China. Its strategy was to prioritize branding over sales, according to Chinese language reports. In one Chinese report done in 2018, it says mockingly the company “adopted a Buddhist zen philosophy” on wine sales on e-commerce platforms such as Tmall.com and JD.com when it has over RMB 700 (US$99) million worth of wines sitting in storage.
Others impressed by its ad spending called the company a “ground-breaker” in China’s imported wine business.
The Beijing News did a search on Tmall.com, China’s biggest online retail platform, in 2018 when A Bite of China season 3 was aired and found that the winery’s flagship wine Chateau de Pic 311, which retails for RMB 118 only sold 54 bottles in a month, while none of its pricier bottles were sold. Another search of its flagship wine this week by Vino Joy News on Tmall.com showed none was sold so far.
In fact, Chateau de Pic’s parent company Yifeng’s troubles unlike its wine sales compounded before 2018. In 2016, the company already sold its majority stakes to state-owned Ningxia Yinchuan Comprehensive Free Trade Zone Investment and Development Group, and public records showed lengthy lawsuits with lenders over debts.
By 2019, its parent company Yifeng can no longer afford to manage Chateau de Pic and sold it to another Chinese businessman from Ningxia surnamed Xu in August, according to French media.
Still problems persist and worsened due to the virus outbreak. The winery’s long-time cellar manager Bernard Pitoux complained that the winery at the moment can’t guarantee future vineyard work and still has four vintages sitting in the cellar waiting to be bottled.
Pitoux has worked at the winery for over 15 years and is among one of the three employees who are suing the estate.
But short on cash, the winery’s future remains uncertain.
There are about 120 estates in Bordeaux that are bought by Chinese investors, representing less than 2% of the famous wine region’s ownership.