California winemakers think the days of rice wine in China are waning as vintners find success marketing high-end cabernets to a new generation of upscale consumers.
Wine exports crushed international sales records in 2011, due in large part to growing demand for California wines in China and Hong Kong.
Lodi, as the largest wine grape producer in the state, features favorably among the international exports.
"We are positioned perfectly to take advantage of export activities because we have a superior quality ratio," said Frank Gayaldo, director of international business development for the Lodi Chamber of Commerce. "In the last few days, I've gotten two calls from big Chinese exporters, and on their own, they've come to the same conclusion."
"The fastest growing imported wine market in the world is China, with Russia being second fastest," Gayaldo said.
China is the fastest growing imported wine market in the world, and Russia comes in second, according to Gayaldo.
"What I'm seeing is an increase in Lodi wines around the world, which means the efforts of Lodi wines is working," said Gayaldo. "The world is getting hungrier and thirstier and we're going to play a big role in making sure people are getting quality agricultural products."
Winemakers in Napa Valley have also put in the hours to enter foreign markets.
"We've been laying the groundwork for the better part of 10 years," said Terry Hall of Napa Valley Vintners, the region's trade association.
"It's not like you just show up and start selling wine there."
Lower quality California appellation wines have sold well to middle-class consumers in recent years, but the increasing demand for top quality vintages is evidence of China's growing upper class.
"We try to be in all of the same places as all of the other important wines of the world and right now China is attracting so much attention," said Don Weaver of Napa Valley's Harlan Estates, where Bordeaux blends can sell for up to $1,000 a bottle on some wine lists and are double that in China. "Trying to solve the China puzzle is the most exciting part of my job right now."
U.S. wine exports to China grew by 42 percent last year, and similar increases were noted in other Asian nations, according to figures released Thursday by the Wine Institute in San Francisco.
It nearly doubled 2010 export numbers as more winemakers are seeking to crack a relatively untapped market.
The industry effort to stand out from the French wines that have long been in China involves making a connection between potential buyers familiar with TV's "Bay Watch" and the Golden Gate Bridge to the California lifestyle.
"There's an association with wine and the western world," said Linsey Gallagher, director of international marketing.
"It's seen as part of a luxurious lifestyle in other parts of the world. It's one of the aspirational products people look to as the quality of their lifestyles is improved."
Last summer the institute launched a marketing campaign to introduce California-made wines, including a virtual tasting.
Wine and lifestyle writers in Shanghai talked to growers in San Francisco, who led them on guided tastings of select California wines that already were available in China. In November, a dozen members of the media came from China to tour wineries.
News-Sentinel reporter Sara Jane Pohlman contributed to this report.