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Everything's just vine for quality California wine

THE Californian Wine Institute reaffirmed its commitment to the Chinese market with a strong showing at this year's tasting held at the JW Marriott earlier this month.

The annual event was particularly poor last year, with no concerted message and a lackluster sampling of wines. But the institute has bounced back with commitment from both local distributors and Californian vintners in offering the best the United States West Coast has to offer. More than 70 labels were on show, and heavy hitters such as Duckhorn, Seghesio, Delicato's Gnarly Head and Schramberg, America's premium sparkling wine maison, among others, were all on show.

Most heartening was the level of interest shown by local wine lovers during the trade tasting. While these events tend to attract the usual lot of free loaders (such as newspaper reporters and former film villains), there was a large level of local interest and distributors were well-equipped to handle their queries.

The Californian wine industry has taken a hit during the recent economic crisis, and this has spurred vintners to double their efforts to crack this potentially lucrative market. Bordeaux chateaux and top Burgundy dominate the high-end market here, while the mid-market is extremely fragmented at the moment.

Young estates

With land and labor costs (even with guest worker programs) much higher than other New World producers, California is unable to compete at the high-volume low-end market in the same way that Chile does.

One of the problems faced by Californian producers is the relative youth of its estates. One vintner in attendance was proudly proclaiming that his family had been making wine since 1985; a fellow wine lover responded by pointing out his village back in Germany had been making wine for hundreds of years.

Yet how important is history, given that new wine producing nations (including China) are poised to emerge. Most telling was an anecdote shared by Piedmont's famed doyen Roberto Bava during his recent, separate visit, who spoke of attending a conference in India with the granddaughter of California's largest exporter, E&J Gallo (whose stable includes the ubiquitous Carlo Rossi range). There, both Italian and American were considered to be advocates from the Old World, relative to the youth of India's fledgling wine industry.

In other words, as long as the wine is good, is age just a number? With the right marketing to the segment of wine lovers who would appreciate California's robust and fruit forward style, it won't be long before connoisseurs are picking the likes of Cakebread Cabernet Sauvignon, Duckhorn Paradox or Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel from the best wine lists in the country.


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