Calif winemakers work to crack Chinese market

By Tracie Cone

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Heitz Cellar's Kathleen Heitz-Myers has traveled to China five times to research distributors for her cabernets. She gauges the growing demand by the increasing number of Chinese tourists who visit Napa tasting rooms.

"I expected it to be the high-end people collecting wines, but what impressed me when I was there were the younger people embracing it as part of their lifestyle," she said. "Their general knowledge is very good."

China is the biggest foreign consumer of American-grown products, and California products are highly desirable. Almonds, walnuts and pistachios are also enjoying record-breaking sales.

"There's a certain panache that goes with California," said Judy Hirigoyen of the American Pistachio Growers, which saw a 400 percent increase in sales during a two-month promotion that ended last week with the Chinese New Year.

But it's the luxury products such as wine that often indicate the health of an economy, and Napa cabs don't come cheap. Even former NBA star Yao Ming is getting in on the action with a 2009 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that has a $289 a bottle price tag that he'll market to China's upper echelon.

Breaking into a market that is new to fine wines is a complicated process. Ships, docks and trucks must be temperature controlled to keep wine from spoiling. Trademarks must be protected, and sommeliers and beverage directors educated.

Napa Valley growers have been laying the groundwork for the past decade with periodic trips, but in the last two years growers have made the trip annually, as they will again in May.

Industry officials view China the way they did Japan 30 years ago. A lot of education and transformation of tastes had to take place, and now that country is the fourth-largest importer of U.S. wines, one step ahead of China.

At Harlan Estate, described by wine critic Robert Parker as "the single most profound red wine" in the world, Weaver believes the country holds promise for a wine of that stature.

"Japan is now a very sophisticated wine market," he said. "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."

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