Although tourism from China currently represents only a small percentage of the total visitors to Wine Country, this will change in the coming years. The recent Visit Napa Valley 2014 Visitor Profile Study found that 87 percent of visitors to the Napa Valley were from the United States, and those coming from China made up only 1.7 percent. Seeing these numbers may lead some to question the extra efforts that may be needed to address Chinese visitors. But they’d be wrong.
The expected rise in visitation from Chinese tourists will continue and is due, in part, to increased travel to the United States driven by a change in visa policy. This change was approved by Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama in 2009, then extended at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November 2014, where the two leaders agreed to extend tourist visas for 10 years and student visas for five years. Since then, visa issuance has jumped nearly 70 percent.
Wine is also becoming more widely consumed in China. Even with the recent downturn in the Chinese economy, both the middle class and its desire for luxury items are growing. There are conflicting reports on how much wine is actually consumed in China (some suggesting there’s as much as twice the consumption of that in the United States, whereas other data suggests much less). Nevertheless, with a population of nearly 1.5 billion people, any change in consumption behavior is a big deal.
A recent study showed that, on average, visitors from China spent $6,000 per person during trips to the United States, which was more than any of the other groups surveyed. Visit California, the state’s tourism marketing board, recently made China its primary target for tourism due to increases in both existing and forecasted visitors and spending (it was previously fifth on the list).
All these changes are likely to have significant impacts on local business.
The most common language in China is Mandarin, so many wineries are already looking to hire employees proficient in the language, not only as tour guides but also to create menus and maps for guests. Hall wines in St. Helena will be offering tours in Mandarin beginning this month, and the successful Castello Di Amorosa has two Mandarin speakers on staff (there were three until one recently left to join the newly opened Yao Ming tasting room in St. Helena). Ming, a retired NBA professional who played for the Houston Rockets, was born in Shanghai, China.
Color is an important aspect to many cultures around the world, and China is no different, with red symbolizing good fortune, happiness and joy. Thus, red wines are often preferred over whites, and many of the wines purchased are given as gifts back home. The folks at Castello Di Amorosa created special programs focused on red-wine, with some providing special wine guides in Mandarin.
The world of wine is full of intricate descriptions of flavor, aroma and taste. And while many of the concepts translate fairly well into Mandarin, others don’t. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal called “Lost in Translation,” many flavors commonly referred to in wine-tasting notes aren’t familiar to Chinese people. Fruits such as cassis, passion fruit and blackberry, or herbs like thyme simply aren’t common in China, whereas flavors associated with traditional herbal medicine, orange or more common savory flavors—like soy and tea—are more relatable.
The amount of red tape involved in shipping wine into China can be daunting, with taxes and shipping fees to the mainland often making costs prohibitive. That being the case, many prefer to have their orders shipped to Hong Kong, where there are no import taxes—but this has its own set of challenges, including concerns over the wine being lost or counterfeited along the way. A local company, Gliding Eagle, co-founded by Sonoma-born winemaker Adam Ivor, is working to address both issues, helping Chinese tourists ship back their wine securely using authenticated shippers and secure tracking code technology.
Every culture is different. Hundreds of books were written in the 1980s about the cultural differences between Japan and the United States and, as a business consultant in the 1990s, I spent hours learning the proper way to engage with Japanese colleagues—how to present my business card properly, whom to address first during meetings and gaining an appreciation for many of our other cultural differences.
This isn’t just an Asian issue. The French also have different ways of doing things, as do people in South America, the Middle East, India and Africa. As our world becomes smaller, it’s important to understand and accommodate these differences. It’s the polite thing to do, and it’s good for business. Most people prefer to work with others or purchase items from companies that have done their homework and are gracious enough to accommodate differences.
We have the opportunity to engage with a dynamic culture that’s interested in wine. Let’s work to show them—and the rest of the world—what it means to visit California Wine Country. At our best, we’re hospitable, focused on making the highest-quality wines and willing to go the extra mile.
If we do that, we can expect greater prosperity for all.
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