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Photograph by Rachel Robinson

Cultural Exchange: Pacific Vintage Group hopes to capture the huge--though not necessarily ripe--Chinese market with their Sausalito wine.

Red Menace

Introducing wine to China may not be easy, but it's no harder than bringing Chinese wine to America

By James Knight

Conditions are perfect in the wine country this harvest season. The days are sunny, the nights cool, and thousands of acres of new vineyards planted during the wine boom are ripening in the sun. Conditions are perfect for a wine glut.

It happens every time. Vineyards boom, sales flatten, prices fall. Hardest hit may be the Central Valley, where Chardonnay is practically given away, but this glut will soon be worldwide. Enter a maverick Santa Rosa company with a plan to import wine from the nation that has driven almost every other industry to its shores--China.

Not rice wine or plum wine, not even "red sorghum" wine. Cabernet Sauvignon.

The People's Republic isn't exactly on the map when it comes to the king of grapes. China, which has been admitted to the World Trade Organization, may be the origin of your clothes, shoes, barbecue grills, telephones, and countless plastic gizmos. Could a flood of price-busting Chinese Merlot be far behind? Barring a flood, Santa Rosa entrepreneur Kent Godwin is aiming for at least a trickle.

Godwin is president of the Pacific Vintage Group, formed in 1998 to explore the Chinese wine market. Godwin, who studies Chinese language and kickboxes in his spare time--and who appears generally to be a walking advertisement for the wine country lifestyle--is fashioning a marketing program to introduce the pleasures of the fermented grape to the Chinese. In the meantime, he is planning to import Chinese-made wine to the United States later this year. Saying that there might be a market especially in the Chinese community and restaurants, he cautions that "the key is to make sure it's California-friendly."

Pacific Vintage Group's first idea was to sell California wine in China. The French are already getting in on the game: according to Godwin, a French supermarket chain in metropolitan Beijing and Shanghai has an impressive selection of wine, including some of the major Californian players like Gallo and Kendall-Jackson. "They're not doing gangbusters; they're keeping shelf space from their competitors," Godwin explains.

But Godwin and company, among others, are working on inculcating the Chinese with an appreciation for wine. They have developed a Chinese wine with a uniquely American image. It's called Sausalito, because "it sounds nice and might roughly translate to golden hills."

Many before have tipsily contemplated that market, stupefied by a hallucination of never-ending sales. If 1.3 billion people had just one glass of wine a year . . . The figures inspire wine marketers to madness, drooling into their stemware. Still a developing country, China's middle class of young, urban professionals is expected to eventually number 300 million, 10 times larger than the potential market of the United States. If the average Joe--or Chou--were to knock back an occasional glass of California wine after work, demand would race ahead of supply far beyond the setting sun.

But it may be a slow boat to China. Godwin quotes the saying, "China is the land of opportunity, and always will be." The middle class is actually less than 9 percent of the population, and even in the urban metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, the qualifying income is around $1,200. The top price a bottle of wine can fetch is about $4. Tariffs and duties on imported wine don't help, almost doubling the shelf price. That will be reduced to 14 percent under the World Trade Organization agreement.

And then would-be wine vendors have to promote dry, grape wine in a culture that is largely oblivious to that genre of refreshment. It's curious, since grapes have been grown in China for 4,000 years and wine made for almost two millennia. The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, sort of the beatnik poets of the third century, cavorted famously, singing the praises of wine for its loosening effects on the creative mind, and its loosening effects generally.

But most Chinese, being pragmatically inclined, have in the past chosen rice wine or grain spirits--which deliver the most bang for their yuan. Enter the revolution. In the past decade, the government has officially promoted the healthful virtues of wine. The subtext is that moderate wine drinkers are likely to be less soused and more productive workers, and also that hard spirits divert a lot of grain that could be better used as food.

In modern Shanghai, where there is already a Starbucks around every corner, wine has indeed acquired a sophisticated "western" status image. Taste is yet to be learned, however. Wine is often poured into Coke, even at formal banquets.

Marketing dry wine in China requires an unconventional approach. "How do you get the attention of 1.3 billion people?" Godwin asks. Sausalito has captured 1 percent of the market in Shanghai--a huge achievement for a $6-$7 wine in the ultrapremium category. Some of its success may be due to its unique image.

Sausalito comes in a handsome package, with a real cork. The label reads "Presidential Selection," and below, Thomas Jefferson sits in presidential repose (U.S. presidents are highly regarded in China). Jefferson seems to have a small cocktail table in front of him, using possibly an early draft of the Constitution as a place mat. Across from him the Statue of Liberty is unmoored in space, and in the background is some scenery that Godwin admits is more evocative of a Chinese estuary than Virginia.

The label bears a stamp that reads, "Napa Sonoma California Vineyards," yet the wine is made in northeastern China, with some bulk French hooch to top it off. This is not unusual--in China, you can pretty much put anything you want on a label, and in the bottle.

Even with their success with Sausalito and their more price-competitive brand, Red Angel, Godwin says they are basically positioning for the future. At best, results will be slow in coming. But when they come, everyone will want to be there.

About the prospect of cheap, Sino-Franco wine flooding the shelves of a supermarket shelf near you, Godwin just doesn't see it happening. He points out that it never happened with the much better quality South American wines. Anyway, hoping that the economy of the giant across the Pacific continues to grow, the upbeat Godwin says, "We'll just sell them our good stuff!"

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From the September 12-18, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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