January nights in Beijing are normally much colder than they are in Lodi, and this particular evening would prove to be no exception. The air smelled fresh, dry and crisp. Maybe I was just happy to finally be off a stuffy plane.
My cab driver briefly looked at the hotel directions that were displayed in Mandarin on my iPhone. He muttered a slight grunt and away we went. Roughly 45 minutes later, I found myself abruptly dumped off in front of numerous bustling restaurants and large neon signs that I could not understand. All the windows were full of steam and happy faces. Only one problem: I didn’t see even one hotel, and my gruff driver had already sped off. Where was I? Was I even still in Beijing? I had fallen asleep in the taxi, and now I was totally disoriented and freezing. Although I had been to China probably 10 times, this was only my second time to Beijing, and my first time to travel there totally alone.
My former law enforcement instincts directed me to approach a strikingly beautiful off-duty waitress and ask for help. After I showed her my iPhone screen, she shyly motioned for me to walk with her, just as my phone battery died. Due to our language barrier, I didn’t know if she actually understood where I was trying to go, but I was more than happy to follow her anywhere. We were “together” for about 20 feet before she suddenly turned and walked away. Tragically, my four-star hotel was actually very close, tucked away in a nearby alley. My one-sided, torrid romance ended as quickly as it began.
My “brother” Tie Zhang, president of both the US-China Business & Culture Association (based in Sacramento and Shanghai) and the Gold Coast Wine Group (an export company based right here in Lodi) would be joining me the next day. I wouldn’t have any more golden opportunities to get lost — an essential part of any great travel experience.
Tie was the keynote speaker at a Beijing New Year’s party that had a California wine theme attached to it. Tie asked me to join him, in order to help tell the Lodi wine story in person. We hoped Ms. Lee, the hostess of the party and Tie’s newest wine distributor, would benefit from our combined efforts. Ms. Lee humbly admitted she was not yet knowledgeable about California wine, much less Lodi’s, but she very much liked how it tasted. Plus, thanks to Tie’s bicultural business acumen, Ms. Lee saw a lot of long-term business potential for California wine in China.
My secret personal goal was to help her sell at least 50 cases to get the momentum started. I didn’t tell anyone that, including brother Tie, in case we fell short.
Most of the 250-plus guests were either affluent customers or highly skilled employees of Ms. Lee’s primary business — a successful computer software company. Graciously joining us at the head table was former Consul General Gao Zhansheng (and his lovely wife), who, prior to retiring in Beijing, was assigned to the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. During his tenure, Consul General Gao had worked to increase mutually beneficial trade and friendship between our two great countries, one city at a time.
It was on Aug. 6, 2008, two days before the Beijing Olympics, that the consul general had accepted my personal invitation to come to Lodi and learn about our world-class wine region. Prior to his official visit, he had never even heard of Lodi. Quite frankly, neither had the Chinese mainstream media. Today, after numerous inbound and outbound trade missions, Lodi wine has truly found a place on the international stage. Export sales to China and other Asian countries have increased dramatically in just five short years. Some of Lodi’s smallest wineries are now selling as much as 50 percent of their annual production to China alone.
I wore a dark blazer and black dress shirt with a bright red and gold silk tie that Consul General Gao had presented me when we first met back in 2008. In striking contrast to everyone else who was impeccably dressed, my lower half was awkwardly adorned with blue jeans and cowboy boots. My “brother” Tie translated my 2014 Beijing New Year’s party speech into Mandarin in a way that I am sure was much more eloquent than whatever it was I actually said.
I did remember to thank Consul General Gao for his longtime friendship and public service. I also expressed how grateful l was for my father, a cancer and stroke survivor who just celebrated his 83rd birthday. I told everyone how my dad still works nearly every day in the Lodi vineyard he planted over 40 years ago. Thanks to his hard physical labor, I often get to go globetrotting at my leisure.
The audience was very generous with their applause. Lodi wine kept flowing for the next three hours.
The next day, as I was riding the high speed rail from Beijing to Shanghai for another round of meetings, I received a text message on WeChat, China’s version of Facebook. Shortly after the party, Ms. Lee’s staff had processed numerous individual orders amounting to more than 1,000 cases of Lodi wine — over 20 times what I had originally hoped to help her sell. Apparently they liked my cowboy boots.
What an exciting Year of the Horse this is starting out to be. Now if it would just start raining in Lodi.
Frank Gayaldo can be reached at email@example.com.