Metropolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai are seeing a lot of wine-tasting events, organized by major wine-producing countries.
But recently the agricultural trade office of the US embassy chose to hold an American wine tasting in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province.
More than 400 people, mostly industry insiders, attended the wine tasting on July 10. The number of attendees was twice the initial expectation.
"I was told that almost 80 percent of wine industry players from Zhengzhou showed up," says Ma Zhen, editor-in-chief of Wine in China, which co-sponsored the event.
Wine educator Yin Lixue gave a two-hour introduction to American wines, during which she and the audience tasted 12 wines from different parts of the US.
"I was a bit surprised to learn that the event would be held in Zhengzhou, because even in bigger cities in China, American wine is still relatively new," she says.
She was even more surprised when she ordered champagne in a local restaurant the night before the event in Zhengzhou, and had a professional sommelier serving it in a proper glass. "That standard procedure of serving wine has not even been popularized in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou," says Yin, director of Godolphin Wine Services Shanghai. "It just means that wine is no longer a novelty in Zhengzhou."
Among 13 national and local sellers of American wines at the event, Silenus International Group attracted a lot of attention. The group, which specializes in selling US wines in China, was established in 2010 after Meijing Group, a Henan real estate company, purchased the Silenus Vitners chateau in Napa Valley, California.
Ralph Bean, director of agricultural trade office, says the purchase was part of the reason he organized the wine tasting event in Zhengzhou.
"If these guys are willing to commit their money to buy an entire winery, that tells me there's a good market for US wines here in Zhengzhou," he adds.
Wang Yuan, deputy general manager of Silenus International Group, reveals that the company spent $10 million to buy the winery.
"The head of our company is far-sighted. He feels that American wine will become popular, and the purchase will be a good investment," Wang says.
The company has even built a wine-themed club to sell the company's wines. The wines are mostly sold at between 1,000 yuan ($157) and more than 4,000 yuan ($627) a bottle. The cheapest bottle is priced at 480 yuan ($75).
Ralph Bean says although US wines are recognized in the world market as among the best, it's difficult to make any progress in Beijing and Shanghai because tough competition causes their message to get drowned out easily. "In Zhengzhou, we have an audience who is eager and interested in what we have to say," he says. "You can see from today's event that the response of the local industry is really good."
With more than 8 million regular inhabitants, Zhengzhou is one of the biggest Chinese provincial capitals. Driving through the city, one can find many wine stores along the streets.
Zhang Weifeng, deputy general manager of The Wine Bible, a Zhengzhou wine company, says alcohol consumption in Henan is among the highest in China.
"When the company was established in Henan in 2008, there were very few companies dealing with imported wines," he says. "But after 2010, the number of wine stores grew like mushrooms after the rain."
He estimated there are some 10,000 wine stores in Zhengzhou. "Many have turned from baijiu (white liquor) to wine because they see the potential," he says. "From the sum of investment and the scale of decor, a lot of people have invested big on the business."
Xiong Yuliang, head of Imported Wine Section of Henan Province Alcoholic Industry Association, said at a recent news conference that increasingly, Chinese consumers have a deeper understanding about the quality of wine.
In the past years, China's imported wine sales have increased by an average of 30 percent a year, according to Xiong. But the wine market in Henan is still at a very basic level, where most people buy imported wines priced from 100-300 yuan ($16-47) a bottle.
He warns that wine sellers seeking huge profits will face fierce competition and many will be squeezed out because of a poor understanding of the market.