U.S. wine exports to China grew by 42 percent last year, says the Wine Institute in San Francisco, nearly doubling 2010’s figures as China scrambles for high-end cabernets. “We’ve been laying the groundwork for the better part of 10 years,” said Terry Hall of Napa Valley Vintners, the region’s trade association. “It’s not like you just show up and start selling wine there.”
Breaking into a market that is new to fine wines no small feat. Ships, docks, and trucks must be temperature controlled to keep wine from spoiling. There’s also the matters of protecting trademarks and educating sommeliers. But all the hard work done by Californian vintners in China seems to be paying off, much like educating Japan about fine wines did 30 years ago. After transforming Japanese tastes, that country has become he fourth-largest importer of U.S. wines, one step ahead of China.
“Japan is now a very sophisticated wine market,” says Don Weaver of Napa Valley’s Harlan Estate. “Our learning curve with China will probably be even more accelerated. You go to a place like Shanghai and see the vibrancy and it just feels like all things are possible. The smell of opportunity is in the air.”
Weaver’s Bordeaux blends fetch up to $1,000 a bottle on some wine lists and are double that in China. What distinguishes the top Californian wines from those of French rivals is the popular perception of the Golden State: the TV show “Bay Watch,” the free-and-easy surfer lifestyle, the arts and politics. “There’s an association with wine and the western world,” said Linsey Gallagher, director of international marketing for the Wine Institute. “It’s seen as part of a luxurious lifestyle in other parts of the world. It’s one of the aspirational products people look to as the quality of their lifestyles is improved.”
Last summer the institute launched a marketing campaign to introduce California-made wines, including a virtual tasting. Wine and lifestyle writers in Shanghai talked to growers in San Francisco, who led them on guided tastings of select California wines that already were available in China. In November, a dozen members of the media came from China to tour wineries.
Grape wines still account for just 10 percent of the alcohol consumed in China. Part of the trick in marketing high-end wines in China is in educating palates, and helping Chinese growers produce better quality wines so consumers are not turned off by them, Gallagher said.
The Chinese economy has doubled in the past seven years, and low-end estimates say there are 1.5 million millionaires. With a population of 1 billion people in China, Gallagher figures only 18 million of them can afford fine wines. “That sub-segment grows every year,” Gallagher said. “The long-term opportunity is to get the rest of those billion people. We have our work cut out for us.”