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Cheng Jin: Tasting success with wine

Turning one’s hobby into a money-making career takes courage, wisdom and luck. And sometimes it involves travelling across the oceans to a far off land. The story of Cheng Jin (程锦), owner of a budding Guangzhou-based wine company Oeno Vineyard is exactly such a story, and an enchanting one at that.

Photo: Courtesy of Cheng Jin

Cheng's Oeno Vineyard which was first opened in Beijing in early 2009 and was relocated to Guangzhou in 2012. Her many portraits in various Chinese magazine articles and TV interviews depicted her as something akin to a legend, which she quickly dismissed with a quiet chuckle, in the gentle and modest way that is uniquely hers, "Oh I'm nothing like that."

A Guangzhou native, Cheng attended the famous South China University of Technology, where she obtained a bachelor's degree with a double major in Computer Science and International Trade. She worked for the marketing department of IBM after graduation, a job envied by many.

When everything seemed to be going in her favor, she made a surprising decision to quit and move to Singapore, where she joined the sales division of the global software giant Oracle. Two years later, just as the team she led was flourishing, she made yet another decision to leave. This time she went to study at the University of British Columbia in Canada. After earning her MBA there, Cheng was recruited by a famous Canadian software company as Business Development Director for the Greater China region.

After seven years of study and work in Canada, Cheng moved back to China, where she set up her current wine business. It was almost like a pattern, or perhaps it was her philosophy: to quit at the peak lest one face the downward curve. Responding to this thought, she laughed and explained, "In fact, I came back to China for a different reason. Because I had to travel back and forth between China and Canada so often for my job, I suggested opening an office here. That was it." Even so, her formidable drive to take up new challenges and win is clear, which is perhaps key to her success.

As to her selection of wine business, which was outside of her area of expertise, she said, "Wine is something I truly love. And I think it is great that you can build a career on something you love. It is just so much better that way." Then she added, “It was also a good opportunity to put what I had learned about entrepreneurship in my MBA course into practice.”

Photo: Courtesy of Cheng Jin

It was not a decision made in haste. And it was a decision many Chinese people find difficult to understand because few ordinary people would forsake a comfortable life and well-paid job in Canada to come back to China and start something entirely new. But Cheng was both determined and confident. She did a meticulous market research and analysis and made a detailed business plan, which convinced everybody she was going to make it.

And she did so in a splendid manner. To this day, her company is the only company in China that features individual wine making services to the customers, allowing them to make their own wines from imported grape juices, which has proven to be very popular. Their seminars on wine and wine culture are also a bona fide hit, besides their main business of hosting wine-themed receptions and events for enterprises and organizations. 

"Drinking wine is not in the Chinese blood," Cheng admitted, "But I can see it is slowly changing. More people are opting for wine rather than Chinese liquor for their health benefits. And many young people grow to like wines even though their initial encounter with wine was only because it was a western and trendy thing to do. And I want to share with them what I have learned about wine and how to appreciate it."

Cheng's love affair with wine started in Canada. "We had a wine-tasting every Friday afternoon," she recalled, "The theme changed every time, for example one Friday we may have a Merlot-centered tasting, and the next Friday we will focus on wines produced in Napa Valley. It was because of those wine-tastings that I entered the wonderful world of wine. The more I learned, the more eager I was to learn more. And in the end, I fell in love with wine."

Back in China, Cheng has been thinking innovatively to make wine more popular to the Chinese public. Unique ideas such as wine pudding and wine facial mask are adding to the appeal of Cheng’s Oeno Vineyard among the customers. As a WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) certified wine taster, Cheng is also constantly thinking about how to combine wine with the Chinese food. "It's like a challenge with your tongue," She said. "Different ways of cooking and different dishes all require different wines. It is great fun to figure it out."

Cheng has been interviewed by many food and drink magazines and has appeared on TV quite a number of times as her business prospered and her reputation grew. But to her, the real sense of fulfillment and accomplishment comes not from that, but from the joy of doing something she loves to do.

It is wine that earned Cheng her fame, but her life is not confined to that. Her many other hobbies include sailing, scuba diving, skiing and golf, which certainly make her stand out among her peers, most of whom are alien to these sports. She is also an avid traveler, and loved to write travel blogs before her busy schedule as an entrepreneur and mother took over. "Life is short. Enrich it in whatever way you can. That is the motto I live by," Cheng said.

Photo: Courtesy of Cheng Jin

Right now, Cheng’s time is divided between her company which just launched its first franchised wine cellar in Guangdong, and her daughters: the younger one being only a few months old.

It seems this time she is going to stick with her wine business, at least for the foreseeable future.

“I do miss Canada, and I am taking my six-year-old back for a visit this fall,” Cheng said, “But I’ll continue with my business in China. I am very optimistic about the Chinese market."


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