China is getting a taste for wine. Wealthy Chinese are paying high prices for imported bottles of Lafite, Margaux, Mouton and perhaps ... Yao Ming?
"Yao Ming's wine, if it gets a lot of attention, could really be a good kind of ambassador for California," said Mitch Frank, associate editor of Wine Spectator.
Ming launched his first wine this week - a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that costs about $300 per bottle in China. The 7-foot-6 former NBA player is a big celebrity in his homeland. Now he's lending that star power to a line of super premium wines exclusively for the Chinese market.
The Chinese government has been promoting wine as a healthy alternative to hard alcohol, and there's now a multitude of state-owned companies producing wine for the masses, Frank said. But there's also a burgeoning wine culture embraced by the "new wealthy" Chinese class.
"They are consuming it in great amounts and they're really going for the classics," Frank said.
While Bordeauxs were a common favorite, there has been a recent shift towards the wines of Burgundy, Frank said. About 40 percent of bottled wines imported to China are from France, with the United States ranked at a distant sixth place.
"There's a lot of hurdles for foreign countries," Frank said. "It can be a daunting market if you have never done business there before."
To help sidestep this issue, many wineries that do succeed have typically partnered with a local Chinese distributor. For Yao Ming, his celebrity may help attract the high-end clientele he is appealing to. The wealthy often purchase expensive, prestigious wines to give as gifts over business deals or for loved ones on the holidays.
Mitch Frank, associate editor of Wine Spectator.