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No surprise that China is embracing California wine

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After all those stories from a few years ago about Chinese millionaires mixing Coca Cola into their Lafite, I figured it was just a matter of time before the Chinese discovered California wine, as Bloomberg is reporting.

Why would the Chinese do something so apparently preposterous as pouring cheap soda into one of the most expensive wines on earth? The initial supposition was that the Chinese were just too heathen or unsophisticated to drink Lafite neat, but I think that explanation was insulting and disingenuous to a culture far older than our own (Western) one. They were putting Coke into their Lafite for an obvious reason: to sweeten it! By itself, the Lafite was just too dry to the Chinese palate, which by and large likes its foods slightly sweet.

The Chinese began their fascination with French wines when they started getting rich. French wines were the most famous and prestigious in China, so all the new millionaires (yuannaires?) turned to France to show off their new wealth, the same way they bought Gucci and Pucci and whatever-ucci. But guess what? The found they didn’t like their French wines because they were too dry and austere for their tastes. Funny how that works: you think you’re supposed to like something but when you finally experience it, you don’t. Hence, the decision to blend with Coca Cola made perfect sense. And Americans have no right to snicker at the Chinese for being rubes. After all, we are now a nation that worships mixologists, for whom straight vodka no longer suffices: no, we have to gaga it up with Triple Sec, sour apple pucker, heavy cream and a splash of Sprite. Calling all tiny umbrellas: report to the martini glass.

The Bloomberg article says the Chinese are now falling in love with “mid-priced, boutique quality California wine.” But it also warns that China’s wine market is “rapidly changing,” which means there’s opportunity, but also risk, for everyone. In a land rush, you want to be the first to arrive at the best place; then you have to make sure someone else doesn’t poach it from you lest you return home to the mother country, empty-handed. I suppose that wineries that started exploring the Chinese market decades ago, like Wente (everybody thought they were crazy back then: crazy like a fox) are now enjoying the fruits of their labors. But the Chinese really are ignorant about California, and I mean that not insultingly, but just in the literal sense that they don’t know much about it. The Bloomberg article says the members of a private club in Shanghai, invited to an exclusive wine tasting, “had never heard of Mendocino.” Okay, maybe Mendocino isn’t as famous as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Disneyland, but this does suggest how much education is required to make it in China. If they haven’t heard of Mendocino, chances are they haven’t heard of Monterey, Sonoma or Santa Barbara And Lodi? Fageddabboutit.

It’s very exciting, actually, that Wine Enthusiast now has a Mandarin edition specifically for the Chinese market, making it–I believe–the first American wine magazine to go there. Wine publications have a very important role in educating the Chinese public, and American wine magazines in particular have that obligation and also that opportunity. Yao Ming’s success in Napa Valley will acquaint the Chinese with Napa, or reinforce their existing perception of it, if they have one. But much work remains to be done to let the Chinese know that California wines from all regions and varieties are much to their palates’ tastes: smooth, complex, a little sweet, spicy and, above all, filled with umami (for the most part).

  1. The Wine World has to embrace the World.. heck Ironstone has been embracing them for many years now. Jump on the ship we say. In the end it is business.

    Cheers !!!!

  2. With due respect Steve, I think the Bloomberg article was more of a regurgitated Press Release than any real verification the Chinese have embraced Calif. wines.
    Considering French imports represent ~50% of all imports (by volume, 60% by value) I’d say the Chinese have adapted to French wines pretty well.
    California wines should have an opportunity to succeed there in time but still have a long way to go due to reasons of both prestige, which you mention and price, which you don’t. Currently, USA wines only represent 5.6% of all imports, behind Italy at 7.7%, Chile 8.5%, Spain 9.2% and Australia 12%.

    I don’t see the Chinese adding cola to wine anymore (though I have seen it in Spain & LAM) but they don’t really “taste” wine either, they drink it. Have your WE colleagues there introduce you to the term “Gam-bay”. ;-)

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