Asia could be next market for Virginia wines

By Amanda Iacone
Virginia Statehouse News

RICHMOND — A burgeoning taste for wine in China could provide a massive market for Virginia winemakers, and Gov. Bob McDonnell is promoting the fruitful commodity during a trade mission to Asia.

However, the problem for Virginia wineries is meeting the growing demand in Asia. Virginia is the fifth largest wine-producing state in the United States but only produces about 450,000 cases a year, which is relatively small, said state Secretary of Agriculture Todd Haymore.

McDonnell, his wife Maureen and senior staff are promoting Virginia wines during their 11-day trip to Japan, South Korea and China. Wines from the Old Dominion state have been served at dinners with Chinese ministers and business executives. Wine events exposed restaurants, merchants and retailers to what the state’s vineyards can offer, he said.

“We’ve done everything we can to put the high quality wines in front of as many people as possible,” said Haymore. “They are very interested in our wines.”

He said as many as 15 wineries in the state want to export their product to Asia.

To give perspective buyers a taste, cases from at least six  wineries — including Jefferson Vineyards, Williamsburg Winery Philip Carter Winery of Virginia and Breaux Vineyards — were shipped to Asia, said Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board marketing office.

Many of those same wineries have been talking with South Korean authorities about exporting there, she said.

Asia, especially China, is hungry to learn about wine and culture, she said.

“With that new-found growing, evolving middle class and the creation of wealth in that society, there is also a hunger to learn things that are considered sophisticated or cultured. Wine is a part of that,” Boyd said.

The taste for wine in China has developed during the past two decades, as the country has quickly developed and more openly embraced Western culture, said Patrick Duffeler, founder of one of the state’s largest and oldest wineries, Williamsburg Winery.

And new groups of middle- and upper-class consumers now have a disposable income to buy items like wine, that have been common in Western Europe and the United States, he said.

Duffeler said he supports the governor’s efforts to promote Virginia’s products — whether it’s ham, peanuts or wine — but he doesn’t expect McDonnell’s efforts to have an immediate impact.

The state’s wine industry is too young and too small to be in a position to export, despite the growing interest in wine from Asia, former Soviet countries and Europe, Duffeler said.

Duffeler’s winery is moving forward cautiously into the international market. A group of buyers from Hong Kong are planning a visit, and he sends a shipment of wine every six months to Copenhagen.

But there is still more work to do to expand the wines’ exposure in neighboring Maryland and North Carolina and elsewhere along the East Coast. The state needs to grow more grapes, he said.

Jess Sweely, owner of 7-year-old Sweely Estate Winery in Madison County, said McDonnell should focus on other agricultural products for export.

Chinese wine drinkers want high quality Bordeaux from France plus California wines. Even though Virginia wines tend to be more affordable than California wines, the region isn’t recognized and lacks the reputation, Sweely said.

“We need to develop our market right here in Virginia and in the surrounding states before we ever think about going overseas. We can’t even get the distributors to carry our wine in Virginia,” he said.

Of the 190 or so wineries in the state, the vast majority produce just 2,000 cases a year, he said.

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