When a California winery opens its doors for business, they can sweep their arms over the map of the entire United States and know that they are welcome in any of the fifty states.  They aren’t the “local” wine, it’s a given that the wine will be competently made and meet the consumer’s expectations.  Indeed, the majority of consumer’s expectations are actually defined by the profile of California wines — and it’s when East Coast wineries try too hard to be like their California rivals is when they fail themselves and their customers.

When a New York winery opens its doors for the first time, they are welcomed by a handful of enthusiasts, mostly in the vicinity of the winery, but occasionally (just occasionally) in a handful of other markets.  When it comes to the myriad challenges of selling New York wines domestically or even in our own great city, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but indulge me:  What I discovered about China is a level playing field.

The fact that New York has its very own Wine Outlet in Shanghai meant to service the trade throughout the People’s Republic of China is positively extraordinary and this needs to be recognized here at home!

Having nothing to do with fairness, or even reality, the stature of New York wine is on par with any region in the United States, and is on par with most of the rest of the world, save France.  How can this be true?  Well, in a country with 1.3 billion citizens, where more people speak English than in all of the United States, where the middle class is larger than all of the United States, remarkably there are still only a very tiny number of real wine aficionados and professionals.  What they know about New York is the stature of our grand city — it’s our identity.  Hoteliers, restaurateurs, and retailers notwithstanding, the vacuum of knowledge is pervasive, and you can see that gap being exploited by many of the lower-grade French and Italian shippers whose wines seem to be everywhere.

So, while it seems that on the one hand I’m saying there are shippers who are taking advantage of the market’s overall lack of wine sophistication, and on the other I’m saying here’s a market where we are bizarrely equal to our bigger and stronger rivals from the West Coast for the same reason.

Am I suggesting we exploit this too?  No, not exactly. I am saying that we can enter this market with the advantages that come with the highly desirable brand “New York” and treat the market with the respect they deserve at the same time.  As time marches on, and as the sophistication of the market grows, they will look very unfavorably upon the purveyors of plonk who are swamping the market here with their least impressive products.  At the same time we are in a position to bring the Chinese our very best wines at sensible prices and grow with them. Let’s resist the urge to ship more and more and cheaper and cheaper — certainly an unsustainable row to hoe. Let’s raise them on our finest wines — despite the fact that they insist (demand actually!) incredibly low prices.

Just a second here…this seems self-inflicted you might say.  If the Chinese market is demanding unnaturally low prices it’s logical to see why France is sending them a lot of plonk.  Well, maybe, but it doesn’t have to be like that.  There is plenty of money to be spent and made by patient suppliers of great wines who educate their Chinese counterparts who will in turn educate their customers.  And a carefully applied balance of high-quality wine and pricing that is fair to all will bring home long-term returns.

I’ve discussed the need to be patient before — the Chinese have a manner to doing business that involves, eating, drinking, socializing, karaoke sometimes, gift exchanges, long negotiations, and carefully managed “face-saving” gives-and-takes.  We can politely decline to sell our wines for rock-bottom prices and press on with the correct prices while giving the buyers a chance to save face — and in doing so, we become all the more desirable.

I’d like to call out to all of the wineries in New York to get involved.  Right now only 23 are working with the NYSWO, and ten more are working with the NYSWO through Empire State Cellars.  I would also like those brave souls that also made the trip to reach out to our government in Albany, and to Jim Tresize at the New York Wine and Grape Foundation and urge them to use their influence to push forward the agenda for New York wines in China aggressively.

Tell him what a great trip it was — and the potential of it all.  The European countries where our attention is now (in part) focused are predisposed to wine, that’s true, but the competition over there is fierce, and in my opinion insurmountable by us.  But as a unified region — China can open for us.  It’s worth the shot.

An hour before I typed this, I received my first order from China with an apology for its small size — five pallets of wine between 200 and 300 dollars per case.   It may not have seemed like it before, but this is happening…

Together we can plant an over-sized footprint in a market that only seems far away right now.  Twenty years from now, China will be the first export market for everyone.  Maybe ten, who can say?  Doesn’t it feel good to be out in front for once?