Calif. Wine Makers Look to New Market in China

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The surging Chinese economy is creating demand in that nation for the finer things in life — and California vintners hope that includes wine. Rob Schmitz of member station KPCC reports on winemaker Kendall-Jackson's foray into the Chinese market as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visits the communist nation to promote trade with California.


California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is in China this week promoting trade. Part of his delegation is from California's wine industry, which hopes China may become Chardonnay country. From China, here's reporter Rob Schmitz of member station KPCC, Los Angeles.

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ROB SCHMITZ reporting:

A Friday night at a popular eatery in Beijing means breaking the seals of bottle after bottle of Vijo(ph), a strong rice wine that outsiders often say smells less like wine and more like paint thinner.

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SCHMITZ: The point is to down the harsh concoction as quickly as possible. This traditional practice is reflected in the Chinese language, where the closest translation of `cheers' is `gan-bei,' meaning literally `dry the glass.'

This, says Steve Messinger, is the first challenge for wineries that want to introduce their product to the Chinese consumer. He works for Sonoma-based Kendall-Jackson. Messinger remembers his first trip to China when he uncorked a bottle of his company's vintage wine to share with a local Chinese restauranteur.

Mr. STEVE MESSINGER (Kendall-Jackson): And he proceeded to drink it like Coca-Cola and just downed the whole thing. And, you know, clinked glasses and said, `Ah, this is good.' You know, the thing that we have to understand in the West is baby steps.

SCHMITZ: They're baby steps that Kendall-Jackson has taken for the past nine years in China. China makes up less than 1 percent of the winery's sales, but Kendall-Jackson, along with many other California wineries, has spent the last decade pursuing an education campaign to familiarize the world's fastest-growing consumer population with the finer points of wine culture. Along the way, Messinger has learned a great deal himself about the Chinese palate.

Mr. MESSINGER: And we were pouring Pinot Noirs and I was starting to talk about strawberries and cherries, and I looked at the staff and their eyes had rolled back and they weren't paying attention. And I just realized--I said, `Has anybody tasted a strawberry?' Not a hand went up. And I said, `OK, I have a basic problem here.'

SCHMITZ: That's because some of the descriptors--foods that wine connoisseurs will match with certain wines--are completely different in China. After that presentation, Messinger says, he grabbed a notebook and asked his Chinese counterparts what each variety of wine tasted like. The results ended up here on the grounds of Kendall-Jackson's Sonoma County winery.

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Mr. MESSINGER: Chinese broccoli, bok choy, gail lan, long beans, Thai beans...

SCHMITZ: Messinger strolls down a row of Chinese herbs and vegetables at the winery's organic garden outside its tasting room. They're grown here to appeal to an increasing number of Chinese tourists to the winery. They're also here to help the winery's scientists who are currently developing a China-specific chart that will match each variety of wine with Chinese produce. Associating wine with Chinese cuisine, says Messinger, is the key to educating the Chinese consumer.

Mr. MESSINGER: The Chinese are great about their food. They have a great palate about food and it's extending wine to that same kind of discrimination, if you will.

SCHMITZ: But the Chinese won't get it unless they have access to wine. Currently, most of the Chinese market is dominated by four large Chinese wineries. They'll offer affordable yet lower-quality products that, for the most part, taste like strong grape juice. Until recently, they've been protected by high tariffs on imported wine, but those tariffs have come down. And while these Chinese wines are aimed at the mass market, industry experts say there is a growing population of middle-class urban Chinese who want to be perceived as socially and culturally sophisticated. Don St. Pierre is managing partner of Shanghai-based ASC Fine Wine, China's largest wine importer. St. Pierre says California wineries have been reluctant to invest in China because they don't think the Chinese consumer is ready for fine wine. He's agreed with this strategy until now. In the past year, he says, red wine has been appearing on television and billboard advertisements throughout the country.

Mr. DON ST. PIERRE (Managing Partner, ASC Fine Wine): You will find a model, a sexy model, holding a glass of red wine selling a luxury apartment, a luxury car, a luxury product. So red wine, in particular, has become the symbol of sophistication.

SCHMITZ: Red is also a lucky color in China and it signifies good health. St. Pierre says he's getting more and more requests to train wait staff at hotels and restaurants throughout the country about wine. The staff conducts up to 40 wine trainings a week. St. Pierre says all this activity is a signal to US wineries that now is the time to invest in the Chinese market, especially, says St. Pierre, now that a celebrity governor is here to promote wine culture. And, says Kendall-Jackson's Steve Messinger, Schwarzenegger's mere presence here could be invaluable.

Mr. MESSINGER: If we get a picture of him with a glass of wine, that'll be worth the whole trip.

SCHMITZ: Reporting from Shanghai, I'm Rob Schmitz.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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