With a population of 1.3 billion, China is undoubtedly the world’s manufacturing powerhouse. But as Chinese families rise to the middle class at unprecedented rates, the country is starting to be viewed as something different: a relatively untapped market for wine and other “Western” goods.
According to export experts, serious wine sales to China have only caught on in the past five years. But the rate at which those exports are growing have outpaced many other sectors.
In 2008, the value of U.S. wine imported by China was more than $19 million, according to the Wine Institute. That number may seem small considering the more than $50 billion impact California’s wine business has on the state. However, that paltry export number is likely to skyrocket in the coming decade.
“There’s definitely an interest that’s developed … and it’s particularly among people in the under-35-year-old crowd,” said Christopher Beros, managing director of the California-China Wine Trading Co., based in San Francisco.
Beros added that the significance of this trend could mean huge dollars for U.S. — and particularly California — wineries.
And as that wine-drinking segment expands, ages and accumulates more disposable income, the demand for wine will balloon along with it.
Only a handful of tri-county wineries currently export to China, and most of those that do just started in the past year or are preparing to begin in the coming year. One of them is Starlane & Dierberg Estate Winery in Santa Ynez.
The winery has been working with the California-China Wine Trading Co. to export a small portion of its cases to China. As with any product being prepared for export, there’s a lot of legal wrangling to sort out, which is why going through an export specialist can make the process a bit easier.
JiaMin Dierberg, the winery’s Asia-Pacific sales director, said Dierberg & Starlane has two things going for it. The first is that it produces Bordeaux and Burgundy varietals, which apparently the Chinese can’t get enough of. The second is that they have JiaMin Dierberg, who was born and raised in China, so she understands the audience and can speak to them directly at wine trade shows there.
One of the biggest uphill battles Dierberg and others in the wine export industry noted is educating the Chinese public about California wines.
“I think China has gotten a lot wealthier, but it is still a developing country. Wine knowledge is still really limited,” she said.
Unfortunately for California, the Chinese have a major bias for French wine. Accounting for nearly 40 percent of China’s wine imports, France dominates and has for decades.
“They think if you want to have really good wine you have to have French wine,” Beros said.