Pinot Noir Diplomacy

Southern Oregon vineyards among those making inroads on Chinese market

One Rogue Valley wine producer has a foot in the door of the potentially lucrative Chinese market and others are making their pitch to deliver their vintages to the world's most populous nation.

According to the Oregon Wine Board, of the 23 Oregon wines being sold in China, 22 are from the state's most famous and vineyard-dense region, the Willamette Valley. Del Rio Vineyards is the exception.

Wine sales soar

According to Euromonitor Trade Data, the value of wine exported from Oregon to China mainland and Hong Kong in 2012 was $3 million. The actual amount may be slightly higher as wineries may ship from Oakland, Calif. or Puget Sound, says Bruce Pokarney of the Oregon Department of Agriculture

Sales of wine in China reached $41 billion last year, a 20 percent increase over 2011, with the same jump that year over 2010. That vaulted China over the British to become the world's fifth-biggest market, behind only the United States, France, Italy and Germany, according to the 2013 trade show Vinexpo and International Wine and Spirit Research.

The Gold Hill company started selling Del Rio Vineyards' wine and its second brand, Rock Point Wines, to China last year.

Both brands are now distributed throughout five provinces, says Lindsey Zagar of Del Rio, and a new order is being bottled and will be shipped in temperature-controlled containers after the summer.

Earlier this month, a group of wine importers from Shanghai traveled from Washington state through Oregon on the way to California.

Following an itinerary organized by the Oregon Wine Board, they toured some of the Willamette Valley's top producers — Chehalem Vineyards, NW Wine Co., Lange Estate Winery, Dobbes Family Estate Winery and Ponzi Vineyards. Then they headed south.

On Sunday, the group visited Del Rio Vineyards, then drove to Foris Vineyards Winery in Cave Junction. On Monday, they visited RoxyAnn Winery in Medford.

At Foris, owner Ted Gerber took them on a tour of his vineyards and hosted a three-course salmon dinner prepared by winemaker Bryan Wilson.

Ron Buatte, the principal consultant for the Shanghai Yangshan International Food & Wine Trade Co., said the Chinese market has opened to his other clients in California and Washington, and interest in Oregon pinot noir is emerging.

"We have come away with a favorable feeling" of Oregon wineries, Buatte said. "There is no question in my mind that we will return to Oregon and start shipping when the weather is cooler."

Gerber, who produces 50,000 cases of wine a year, said he would export to China if he could do so without having to add middle management to his family-run business or affect the quality of his wine.

He is already selling Foris Vineyards' red wines and other label Swallow's Riesling and gewürztraminer in Japan, making a combined trip to both markets feasible.

"It is necessary to periodically visit to ensure continued sales," said Gerber. "Also, having sales in many states and several countries diminishes the risk of a temporary collapse of a market."

Del Rio's Zagar says that China is similar to many markets in that consumers are looking for competitive-priced products of high quality and a consistent supply. There, red wines are associated with good health and white wines go well with spicy foods.

Although other countries — France, Italy, New Zealand and Australia — export the majority of the wine sold in China, the U.S. is slowly making a niche for itself, especially with Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons.

Oregon's producers are betting that their world-recognized pinot noirs and notable white wines can find a way into the Chinese consumer's shopping cart just as they have in Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan, the top three importers of Oregon wine.

But producers will have get their message out quickly and at low cost. Dewey Weddington, director of marketing and education for the Portland-based Oregon Wine Board, said the group doesn't have the budget to launch an all-out blitz.

"Oregon's efforts in China have been and will continue to be rather small due to a small budget to pay for activities," he said.

The Oregon Wine Board, as part of the Northwest Wine Coalition, receives funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Market Access Program to promote Oregon wines to other countries.

Next fall, the Oregon Wine Board will participate in the ProWein China wine trade show at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre. The board also will continuing to link importers seeking Oregon wines and advising local wineries "on the realities" of Chinese requirements, labeling and tariffs.

In October, Gov. John Kitzhaber flew on a 10-day trade mission to China and Japan to promote Oregon products, including wine. Among the Oregon representatives joining him was Michael Donovan, the national sales director of RoxyAnn Winery, who also serves on the Oregon Wine Board.

Mike Wisnovsky of Valley View Winery in Jacksonville applauded the local wineries that are attempting to enter the vast Chinese market and said high-quality pinot noirs have the best opportunity to tell Oregon's story.

"But it's a lot easier for me to sell wine in Portland and Seattle than it would be in China," he said.

Zagar agrees that Oregon can promote its valuable reputation for its growing and processing facilities, and for producing food-friendly wines.

Selling in Asia, she says, offers "the opportunity to break into new markets and establish Oregon as a premium producer and supplier on the global level."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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