California Winemakers Boost Sales in Chinese Market


California wine exports crushed international sales records in 2011, largely because of growing demand in China and Hong Kong.

U.S. wine exports to China grew by 42% last year, and similar increases were noted in other Asian nations, according to figures released Thursday by the Wine Institute in San Francisco.

"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."

Lower-quality California appellation wines have sold well to middle-class consumers in recent years, but the increasing demand for top-quality vintages is evidence of China's growing upper class.

"We try to be in all of the same places as all of the other important wines of the world, and right now China is attracting so much attention," said Don Weaver of Napa Valley's Harlan Estate, where Bordeaux blends can sell for up to $1,000 a bottle on some wine lists and are double that in China. "Trying to solve the China puzzle is the most exciting part of my job right now."

The industry effort to stand out from the French wines that have long been in China involves making a connection between potential buyers and the California lifestyle.

"There's an association with wine and the Western world," said Linsey Gallagher, the Wine Institute's director of international marketing. "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.

The Chinese economy has doubled in the last 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."

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