About a dozen years ago, Chinese wine drinkers were mixing Chateau Lafite Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, Joan Kautz recalls.
"They didn't like the taste of wine yet, and they wanted some sweetness," said Kautz, vice president of international operations for her family's vineyards in Lodi, which has been shipping to China for almost 15 years.
Today, thanks to an emerging, increasingly thirsty middle class, more Chinese are drinking California wines without cutting it with cola, including labels like Lange Twins, Ironstone and Michael David, all from the Lodi region.
"Now the Chinese market isn't just about expensive French wines," Kautz said. "Their taste preferences have evolved. It's a population that's becoming more affluent, they're Internet-savvy, they're reading up and wanting to embrace Western culture."
California vintners are raising a glass to this news, and concerted efforts in Lodi, Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles are dovetailing with statewide campaigns to crack the lucrative Chinese market. Scattered wineries throughout Sacramento and the foothills are also pursuing sales to China.
Along with the opportunity, however, come pitfalls in the form of shady business people looking for a quick buck, Kautz cautioned.
Still, the potential is alluring. In 2011, sales of imported wine in China are projected to surpass $1 billion, up from just $60 million in 2004, said Frank Gayaldo, a Lodi wine grape grower and international wine broker.
France, with its long tradition of winemaking, dominates the export trade to China, and Italy and Spain are also significant players, Gayaldo said.
The United States has a minor share about 5 percent of that market with California representing 90 percent of the U.S. wines being exported.
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