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May 26, 2017

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California winemakers tap into growing market

NAPA, California--The global downturn hit Doug Hill's family-run Napa Valley winery hard. But the third-generation California farmer's hopes for recovery are strong — fueled by heady growth in China.

It's a long way from his sun-dappled vineyards north of San Francisco to pollution-shrouded Beijing and Shanghai, but that's where his Hill Family Estate bottles have been heading since last year.

"We're cautiously optimistic about it," said Hill, who visited China last September and was struck first by the smog — "My first impression was, where's the sky?" — but then by the phenomenal signs of growth and wealth.

"There's an upwardly mobile class of people we believe could afford to drink our wines. It wouldn't take a very large percent of the 1.3-1.6 billion people there to create a good market," he added, showing AFP round his hillside vines.

China was the fifth largest export destination for U.S. wine last year, raking in some US$62 million — a fraction compared for example to the US$400 million worth of French Bordeaux sold annually to the Asian giant.

But that U.S. export figure was nearly 30 percent up on 2010, and that trend is expected to continue, according to the Wine Institute, which advocates on behalf of over 1,000 wineries in the western U.S. state.

China was granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations with the U.S. a decade ago, and "the wine was just a trickle back then," said Wine Institute communications manager Gladys Horiuchi.

That potential was highlighted last year when retired National Basketball Association (NBA) star Yao Ming launched his own Napa Valley winery, Yao Family Wines.

The company named after Shanghai-born Yao, who at 7 feet 6 inches (2.28 meters) was the tallest player in the NBA, launched its inaugural Yao Ming 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in mainland China, before selling in the U.S. this year.

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