How come the Chinese don’t love California wine the way they love French wine?
It’s odd, when you think about it, that the Chinese have embraced French wine so fervently. I mean, why wasn’t it California wine? China, over the course of its long history, has had very little to do with France. But the relationship between China and California goes way back–to a sad time (the 1800s) when California imported Chinese laborers to build its infrastructure, including some of Napa Valley’s buildings and wine caves. But today, that relationship is thriving. San Francisco is the gateway from China to the rest of America, the city’s Mayor is Chinese-American, and business interests in and around the Bay Area have been cultivating ties with their Chinese counterparts for decades.
So why did France beat California in the Chinese wine sweepstakes?
The conventional wisdom is that the Chinese are motivated by status, and nothing says “status” louder than a bottle of Lafite. That may partly be true, but it doesn’t fully explain the phenomenon. Of equal, and perhaps greater, importance has been the investment, in time and money, of the French government in promoting French wines abroad, and especially in China. Such organizations as the French Wine Society, which is endorsed by a range of French agencies as well as regional-based ones, have long been actively educating consumers and trade in China. And the CIVB–the Bordeaux Wine Bureau–has cultivated ties to Chinese consumer organizations. As links between the two nations have thickened, the French government has stepped up its efforts to promote wine to China’s growing legions of middle class. As Decanter recently reported, “France accounts for around half of the wine leaving the EU for China annually and the French government has not missed an opportunity to build bridges with the Chinese authorities.” (This is despite issues of taxes and “dumping” that have arisen between the two countries.)
I know that Wine Institute has been trying to cultivate ties with China for a long time. But my sense is that the American government, riven by political differences, has been hesitant to support or promote the sale of wine abroad, to a degree not present in France. That is, I think, due to the historic role wine has played in France. It is part of the essential French patrimony.
Still, I can’t understand why France beat California. It seems so counter-intuitive. As usual when I want more information on something, I turned to my Facebook friends and asked them, “Why do you think the Chinese prefer French wine to California wine?” I got a ton of replies. Here are some of them. Since their names already are public, I repeat them here.
Chris Kassel: “Cachet. Credit the CIVB for having done the required footwork…”.
Peter Nowack agrees. “French has more cachet than Californian. A lot of wine that moves into China is given as business gifts, so prestige plays a role…”.
Fred Swan: “Outreach and availability. European wine merchants have spent a lot more time reaching out to the Chinese market.”
Tim Vandergrift: “Fred Swan is correct. At a trade show I went to the French didn’t have booths: they had pavilions three stories tall, and they knew how to flatter, coax, schmooze and outright bribe Chinese buyers…”.
Bob Cranston: “Having lived and worked in Hong Kong I can tell you it’s simply a matter of familiarity. The French have been working the market in Asia for a very long time.”
Raymond Tosti: “The Chinese are still neophytes to the wine game, and probably still buy into the pre-1970s dogma of how the French are at the pinnacle of quality and California wines are the Charles Shaw of the world!”
Chris Brown: “Newer wine drinkers like lighter wines.”
Bartholomew Broadbent: “The answer is culture. Red is culturally a very important color [in China], so red is the wine of choice. And the Chinese are hardly exposed to anything worth drinking [from California]. Look at the wine list in a Chinese restaurant. They’re serviced by big distributors who put really bad wines on the list.”
Robert Conrad: “In Chinese culture, older is better. If something has been around for a long time it is more respected.”
Sheldon Richards: “I would suggest the British influence in Asia and the French wines they drank when they dominated.”
Doug Wilder: “From Wikipedia: French wine was the first foreign wine imported into China, in 1980.”
Barbara Lardiazbal: “This is a generalization, but in my experience Chinese people like French people more than they do Americans.”
Well, there were a lot more comments; you can see them all here.
As usual, thanks to my Facebook friends for always being so enlightening!