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VIPs eye California's biggest winery

By Caroline Berg in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2013-07-22 11:18

A group of Chinese VIPs spent an evening at a world-class winery in California on Friday to taste its wine products and consider the estate's viability as a wedding destination.

The estate is Viaggio Estate Winery in Lodi, about 40 miles south of the state capital of Sacramento. It's one of more than 80 wineries in the region, has more than 100,000 acres of grapes and is the largest wine appellation in California.

"Lodi actually grows more grapes than Napa and Sonoma combined," local Lodi grape grower Frank Gayaldo said about California's more famous wine regions. "China is fast becoming potentially the largest consumer of wine in the world, so [this relationship] is just a perfect marriage."

Prior to visiting Viaggio, an eight-person wine buyer's delegation from Shenyang, China, spent time at the Lodi Wine and Visitor Center, where more than 200 wines were offered for tasting.

Gayaldo said the Lodi region excels as not only the state's, but also the nation's, top producer of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Zinfandel.

"One thing I'd have to say about Chinese consumers is that they are much more sophisticated [about wine] than what people often read about or perceive," Gayaldo said. "They're a very discerning group."

Exchanges between Lodi wineries and Chinese business delegates began in 2008. This will be the third time the US Agricultural Trade Office (US ATO) in Shenyang, China, and Gayaldo have collaborated to bring wine buyers from Shenyang to this California wine region.

US ATO Shenyang's mission is to assist American agricultural businesses in entering and succeeding in the northeast China market, including the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, which together represent the fastest-growing region of the Chinese mainland with a population of 110 million.

The Wine Institute, which represents 1,000 California wineries and affiliated businesses, has organized trade missions to China with California vintners for 13 years. In May, members of the institute and a delegation of 50 vintners from California traveled to Shanghai, Beijing, Ningbo and Hong Kong, for consumer events, tastings and educational seminars.

The activities were part of a continuing effort to spread awareness of California wines in China, a campaign now in its third year.

During a trade mission led by California Governor Jerry Brown in April, a new initiative called "California Wines Master Class" debuted in cities across China to educate consumers on wine history, climate, regions, varietals and food pairings.

California makes up 90 percent of the total wine exports in the US. Hong Kong ranked third among California's largest international wine-export destinations, investing $115 million in the state's wine. The Chinese mainland ranked fifth and accounted for $74 million in wine export sales in 2012, up nearly 20 percent from the previous year. Europe was No 1, with the European Union's 28 countries accounting for $485 million in sales.

Gayaldo said it can be more profitable for wineries to sell to China, as opposed to selling to a typical domestic buyer, because Chinese buyers usually want to invest in at least a 20-foot container's worth of wine. As the local grape grower has experienced, purchases from China may amount to a thousand cases per sale.

Gayaldo said he encourages Lodi wineries that are interested in selling to China to actually make the trek East to see the market for themselves. So far, our secret to success has been people-to-people relationships," Gayaldo said about the Lodi wine economy.

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