Selling Wine to Korean Women

Writing about sexual symbolism in advertisements for so long, it takes a lot to shock or surprise me these days.

Still, I confess I burst out laughing at this one.

Lest you feel that my sense of humor is a little crass however, then perhaps you need the context. Last week, I was skimming an article in the Korea Times about the rivalry between the French wine Beaujolais Nouveau (보졸레누보) above and the Korean rice wine Makgeolli (막걸리), and suddenly noticed this:

Recognized as a simply old-fashioned drink for a long time, Makgeolli is popular with trend-savvy young female customers in the current boom. The biggest group is women in their 20s and 30s, and some of them ended up placing orders for [the new] Makgeolli Nouveau (막걸리누보) when they came to reserve its Beaujolais counterpart, according to Hyundai Department Store.

Now I’ve written a lot on gender-based Korean advertising in recent months, including that of tea-drinks, health-drinks, and attempts to make soju more appealing to women, so I was interested in finding out if that preference was partially the result of (or led to) similar marketing: after all, gender-based advertising is often more indicative of advertisers’ stereotypes and prejudices rather than any empirical evidence that it actually works. And in the case of that for “girly” Korean drinks in particular?

Well, recently at least that has meant nothing more sophisticated than either the use of a lot of pastel colors and/or the breaking of the convention that bottles must be pointing straight-up and in the bottom right-corner of advertisements. Instead, they pop up in a most satisfying manner almost anywhere, and usually at somewhat less than a 90-degree angle (see here and the bottom of here).

Obviously I can see the humor, and even like this one (aimed at men), but I’m beginning to find its repetitiveness kind of patronizing too.

Refreshingly, I actually saw little evidence of either feature in the marketing for Makgeolli Nouveau (see here and here for examples) though. But you can imagine what frame of mind I was in then, when I finally turned my attention to advertisements for Beaujolais Nouveau instead, and was greeted with the magnificent specimen above!

( Source )

In fairness to Korean advertisers, Beaujolais Nouveau certainly seems to be considered a girly drink worldwide also. In Japan it is poured into spas and promoted as giving smooth skin for instance, and the (presumably) international labeling of previous years’ wines similarly featured pastel colors and flowers and so on.

This possibly explains why the “Peninsula Beaujolais Nouveau Party” at Lotte Hotel in Seoul last Friday boasted a lingerie fashion show too.

But more to the point, the text “신의물방울”, in the top-left corner of the advertisement, translates as “The Water Drops of God” or Kami no Shizuku, a Japanese comic book about wine. Extremely popular, and not just in North-east Asia, there is a wealth of commentary on it, so for interested readers I suggest this post at the manga blog Precocious Curmudgeon for the best summary, with many links to longer news articles. Focusing on the original advertisement here though, in one of those links it is argued that the comic’s greatest impact has in fact been on South Korea, with over 1 million copies sold, and the authors were “stunned to be greeted like stars”  on their first visit there in 2007, even finding themselves introduced to candidates during the presidential election.

You can imagine then, the effect on sales here (and worldwide) when Beaujolais Nouveau was featured in it a few years ago, and accordingly in 2007 Japanese distributor Mercian hired the illustrator to design new labels for the drink. Presumably, a Korean language version of that is what we are seeing here.

For those of you more interested the wines themselves though, I recommend this article from Slate more information on Beaujolais Nouveau itself, albeit not a very flattering one (indeed, a rival Japanese food and drink comic book to Kami no Shizuku describes the drink as “little more than a French prank that the Japanese have fallen for hook, line and sinker”), and the recession has recently forced it to be sold there 10% cheaper than in previous years and in plastic bottles.

( Source: unknown )

Meanwhile, for more information on Makgeolli Nouveau I recommend two articles in turn recommended by connoisseur Tom Coyner: the first from early November on the reasons for Makgeolli’s renaissance, and which mentions that women make up only 10% of drinkers of regular Makgeolli but 30% of the fruit-flavored ones; and the second from Wednesday on the difficulties of expanding the market from its current 3.6% of all alcohol sales. In addition, you may also find this article from February about the Japanese role in its resurgence interesting, and finally all of the above should be placed into the context of the Korean government wanting to promote more domestic rice consumption, as evidenced by its attempts to promote “Garaetteok (가래떡) Day,” named after stick-shaped rice cakes, over the more commonly recognized “Pepero Day” earlier this month.

But has anyone actually tried either? Despite writing all that, I actually only started drinking wine and beer myself about 3 months ago(!) at the tender age of 33 (I preferred various cocktails), but if it tastes okay then I certainly wouldn’t mind trying something sweet and cheap like Beaujolais Nouveau. Any variety of Makgeolli however, would be just too weird: I have tried it, and concluded that something that looks like milk should not taste like wine!^^

Update 1: Water Drops of God is being made into a Korean Japanese drama series featuring Bae Yong-jun (배용준), and is scheduled to start next month.

Update 2: As Gomushin Girl has pointed out in the comments, labeling Makgeolli as rice “wine” is probably incorrect. Adding to that, this post at The Marmot’s Hole makes is clear that serving it in a wine glass is particularly inappropriate.

Update 3: Unfortunately, Bae Yong-jun’s drama series has been canceled.


10 thoughts on “Selling Wine to Korean Women

  1. Women continue to drive sales here and the majority of people actively learning about wine in wine schools or though sommeliers are women. Korean businessmen will purchase wine based on price, ie. ‘expensive is better’ to impress women or business associates.

    Beaujolais Nouveau is a simple young wine. If you enjoy light red wines, then I recommend Pinot Noir or Zinfandel. New world Pinot will be cheaper than Burgundy. For more wine ideas and Korean food and wine matching, see my blog

    1. Thanks for adding that. I’m not surprised by the fact that Korean businessmen will try to impress people by buying expensive wines of course – hardly a uniquely Korean phenomenon! – but I didn’t realize how dominated by women the Korean wine scene was. Forgive me ignorance, but is that imbalance just a Korean thing, or not?

  2. I’m actually a huge fan of makgeolli ~ its far and away one of my favorite alcoholic drinks here. I haven’t yet been able to get ahold of a bottle of the “makgeolli nouveu” but I don’t have particularly high expectations for it. Makgeolli, like beer, needs to be drunk fairly fresh anyway, so besides being made with 햇쌀 it probably won’t taste that different from conventional ones. I’ll try and get my hands on a bottle and see. I do suspect that as a beverage it’s going to find more and more popularity ~ it’s a bit of fad in Japan, apparently, and there’s a number of trendy “makgeolli bars” here in Seoul now that are using it in some very interesting ways: Cocktails, slushies, blended fruit drinks, as well as just a variety of different makgeolli both bottled and “on tap” . . . it’s also showing up in recipes, like salad dressings, marinades, etc.
    At any rate, the comparison to wine is a poor one . . its brewed more like a beer (especially considering the use of malt, etc.) than fermented like a wine.

    1. Sorry for not replying yesterday, Gomushin Girl. And I might have known that you’d know a lot about it: please do put a link to your food blog in one of your comments sometime!^^

      In my defense about comparing it to wine though, “rice wine” is not just how it tastes to my uneducated palate but is invariably how it’s being described and marketed in all the English material on it I looked at for this post. But I defer to your greater knowledge!

      Speaking of which, I’m just curious: years ago, a Korean friend was very dismissive of all of the Chilean wines that flooded Korean shores after the FTA was signed. Do they not have a very high reputation worldwide, or was that just her?

  3. I don’t know about worldwide, but the Koreans seem to have picked up on the vogue for Korean wines from the American craze. Americans, however, were mostly into them for (usually) providing high quality at a lower price than N. American or Old World wines. Most of the Koreans I know who are wine drinkers buy Chilean wines because they’re popular, but the price edge that they have is (and feel free to correct me here, Joshua!) essentially nil. Wine in Korea is relatively expensive in general (seriously, 20,000 won for a bottle of Yellowtail? Wonder how much Two Buck Chuck would run!) and I don’t know that the general public is very educated about wines, hence the preference for very sweet, fruity wines (man, Boones and Arbor Mist could make a killing!). They also treat them as “occassion” drinks, something you order at dinner to impress your date. However, the people who do know wine I find are often extremely knowledgeable.
    Rice wine *is* how it’s usually translated, and since many versions don’t have much carbonation (too old, poorly made, etc.) it can seem much more like a wine. Really good makgeolli often *won’t* remind you of wine though. The food blog is a bit bogged down right now, but when I get things straightened out I will be sure to post a link!

    1. Chilean Wine:

      It does have the price edge. Tariffs have dropped progressively over the last few years from 60.9% in 2005 to 46.3% in 2009.

      Most of it is plonk unsuitable for drinking. However, if you spend over 50,000 a bottle you get good stuff. I had a great 1996 Michel Torres Cabernet Sauvignon last month with pork neck Korean BBQ. 72,000won a bottle. See my notes at

      Don’t give up on wine in this country. I know it expensive, but worth paying for.

  4. Wine in Korea is expensive. 68% tax, 35-50% margin for retail, 50-150% for restaurants, 150-200% for hotels and bars.

    Imbalance. Hmm. In terms of who is paying, still men most of the time.
    The politics of gender and economics in Korean culture. Who is driving taste and is more informed? Women, definitely.

    Yellow Tail is shit. Undrinkable. Drink more and pay more. Go to a dedicated wine shop. I posted wine retailers pre-Christmas sales and good regular priced wine retailers on my blog recently. Look ’em up. BYO is the way to go. Korean restaurants and wine is the way to go. Confused about wine food matching? Email me with questions. Korean food is too good to have alone. Wine and Food is much better. Don’t think you have to give up your love of wine while in Korea.



  5. I have to agree with Gomushin Girl; I really like makgeolli. So far I’ve only been able to try the really cheap stuff that comes in plastic(!) bottles (packaging alcohol in plastic bottles is unheard of in the US, at least on the East Coast, and can’t be good for protecting the drink from UV radiation). Gomushin Girl, do you have any recommendations for specific brands? Or do they all pretty much taste the same?

    Oh and yes, makgeolli is technically a beer, definitely not a wine. Fermented drinks made from grains are beer, those made from fruit are wine (of course, this distinction may not exist in Korean, but that’s the convention in English). If its distilled its a liquor. There are, of course, drinks that blur the lines (like lambics and fortified wines) but in general those distinctions are pretty iron-clad. And maybe I’m wrong, but traditional makgeolli has rice and/or wheat, but not any fruit, correct?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s