Veteran importer’s competitive advantage


Few people have more in-depth knowledge of the China wine industry than Campbell Thompson, who has lived in the country for most of his adult life.

Image: Campbell Thompson

Campbell, 42, heads up the Wine Republic, which is co-owned by the Rathbone family and has a strong portfolio of Australasian wines. The Wine Republic has weathered fierce competition from more recently-established distributors, but is still reporting healthy sales, with turnover last year of around RMB25 million (US$3.6 million).

‘It is a widely held belief that there are now too many wine importers in China, around 3,800, and that many of these are opportunistic traders, not dedicated wine industry professionals,’ says Campbell, who previously worked for the importer-distributor ASC.

‘The current downturn in demand for Bordeaux first growth in China is causing many of the more opportunistic players to question whether they will stay in the business. At the same time, there is no question that more established players are needing to change how they operate in order to stay relevant in the market.

‘I’m optimistic that the market will continue to grow, and to broaden as more consumers explore wines beyond Bordeaux and the other leading categories. Many of our customers really focus on wines with “authenticity”.’

In total, the Wine Republic stocks more than 180 wines from 40 producers in eight countries, including Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Spain, and China. The company is the distributor for the Ningxia winery Helan Qingxue, where female wine-maker Zhang Jing produces Jiabelian, a wine that has been highly praised by critics.

‘When you look at consumption of quality wine in China it is amazing how quickly it has grown,’ says Campbell, who first came to the country to study Chinese, then later worked for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and ASC Fine Wines. ‘Amazing but not surprising because with the benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that China has grown as strongly and quickly as it has and emerged as the world’s second-biggest economy. These things are never guaranteed but China has always has the energy and ability to have a robust economy.

‘When we started the company we were adamant that we would not compromise on quality, and we do not sell to the large-volume retailers. We pitch ourselves as a high-quality company that brings in good quality wines from family-owned estates.

‘There are two things driving wine consumption on China. One is the intrinsic demand for the finer things in life; the other is the symbolic side; wine, like fashion, is a statement that people can use to communicate something about themselves. If I order Lafite it tells you something about me; whether we enjoy the wine is not the issue, it is a statement. For many then ordering Lafite is like ordering lobster or abalone, it is a shorthand way of giving, and receiving, face.’

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