By Seonjin Cha and Kyung Bok Cho
Oct. 31 (Bloomberg) -- With her daughter's wedding coming up, Rhew In Ae's gift to the groom's parents during Korea's three-day Chuseok festival took on special significance. She chose wine.
``I used to buy whiskey for important acquaintances,'' said the Seoul housewife, 52, who paid about $200 for two bottles of Chateau Talbot from France. ``But I know they will enjoy wine as a gift because of its commonly perceived elegance.''
Rhew wasn't the only one switching to wine for last month's harvest thanksgiving. Sales of gift sets rose 75 percent from the previous year at Lotte Shopping Co., South Korea's biggest
department-store chain, and doubled at Hyundai Department Store Co., the second largest.
Wine now is seeping into all levels of Korean society, from corporate executives aiming to impress business contacts to health-conscious youngsters rebelling against the country's hard-
drinking culture. Whiskey and the native soju, a liquor distilled from potatoes and grain, are falling out of favor among Asia's second-most enthusiastic tipplers.
``These days it's not so much of a drink-till-you-die mentality,'' said Kwon Doll, 33, a manager at software developer EZ Communications in Seoul. ``Offering wine makes you look smart and sophisticated.''
As those aspirations rise, the country's leading business groups are tapping into the trend.
Samsung Electronics Co., Asia's largest maker of flat screens for televisions, has sold more than 5.2 million Bordeaux-model TVs since 2006, the company said. The TV resembles a wine glass, with a curved panel resting on a thin stem.
Wine for Gas
SK Energy Co., Korea's biggest oil refiner, uses wine to sell premium gasoline. Drivers get a bottle of French wine for every 650,000 won ($690) of fuel they buy.
``The reaction has been very positive,'' said Park Jae Young, who markets gas at SK Energy. ``Drivers are keen on getting their wine.''
South Korea's 49 million people each consume an average 7.71 liters (2 gallons) of pure alcohol a year, the World Health Organization estimated in 2004. Only Thais throw back more in Asia, at 8.47 liters. Ugandans are the world's biggest drinkers, downing 19.47
liters per person. The French consume 13.54 liters, the British 10.39 liters and Americans 8.51 liters.
Koreans may be making up for lost time. Relaxed import curbs fueled a surge in wine consumption in the 1980s and purported health benefits bolstered sales in the 1990s, said Song Dong Hyun, a marketer at Doosan Corp., which makes and imports wine in Seoul.
Enthusiasm dried up after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, when the economy shrank for the first time since 1980.
`Blow Away Stress'
The latest yen for wine may reflect a gross domestic product expanding by 5.2 percent. Imports of mainly French and Chilean wines jumped 76 percent to $96 million through August this year, government figures show.
Still, the shift also signals changing attitudes among young Koreans, said Micky Choi, president of Wine21.com, an online wine-appreciation club.
``People are looking for something cleaner and healthier,'' than bottles of soju or whiskey shots, said Choi, 42, whose most active members are in their 20s and 30s.``We don't need alcohol to blow away the stress anymore.''
Binge drinking accompanied the rapid urbanization and hard work that underpinned Korea's 400-fold economic expansion in less than 50 years, said Cho Surng Gie, who studies alcoholism at the Korean Alcohol Research Foundation in Goyang north of Seoul.
About 26 percent of Korean adults are ``high-risk'' drinkers -- defined as consuming one 360-milliliter (12-fluid ounce) bottle of soju per evening, according to the Health Ministry. The alcohol content of soju ranges from 19 percent to 25 percent.
`Drops of God'
Cho isn't convinced about a change in culture. Whatever they choose to drink, ``most Koreans still feel that once you open a bottle, you've got to finish it,'' he said.
Modern stress may stem more from which wine cork to pop. EZ Communications' Kwon pores over ``Kami no Shizuku,'' or ``The Drops of God,'' a Japanese manga comic that recommends varieties and delivers tips on appreciation.
In the latest edition of the comic, now in its 12th volume, the characters visit South Korea, remarking on ``a surge in the popularity of wine as never before.''
Wine appreciation classes also are taking off. In Seoul last month, 33 students who paid 4.5 million won for a 10-week class organized by Winies, a wine consultant, spent three hours
sniffing and sipping.
Knowledge of wine is ``a kind of common sense necessary for international business,'' said student Kim Se Min, 49, who is also executive vice president at Prudential Plc's life insurance unit in Seoul. ``I often have to entertain people from Europe or elsewhere for business, but it always felt awkward doing that without knowing about wine.''
Housewife Rhew confessed that she had scant knowledge of wine. Still, it was healthier and cheaper than whiskey, she said.
``It's a gift that satisfies both the givers and the receivers,'' Rhew said.
--With reporting by Bomi Lim in Seoul. Editors: Crisp (msp).