The billboard ads were posted high over Shanghai's luxury malls and subway stations.
In one, a blond young man carries a surfboard through a grassy field. In another, the Golden Gate Bridge towers over the Pacific on a sunny day.
In the minds of American consumers, those images don't evoke California's $18.5 billion wine industry. But in China, where awareness of California wines is low, and an emerging middle class is increasingly buying imports and luxury brands, the state's iconic images are being used to tap into a market with huge growth potential.
The advertising campaign, which lasted a year and ended in July, was a project of the Wine Institute, an association of California wineries. The idea was to connect the California that Chinese consumers know with an industry that wants their attention.
"The challenge for us, and the fun for us, is to connect that really fun image of California to California as a world-class wine producing region," said Linsey Gallagher, international marketing director for the Wine Institute. "They know about Hollywood, they know about Disneyland, they know about the sun and the beach, but there's not much awareness that California even makes wine."
That isn't obvious when looking at the export data.
U.S. vintners shipped $35.7 million of wine to China during the first eight months of this year, up 20 percent from a year ago, according to the Wine Institute. California wines make up 90 percent of those U.S. exports.
And the value of the country's wine exports to Hong Kong more than doubled during the same period, reaching $115.5 million. About a third of that wine finds its way to mainland China, Gallagher said.
Despite that growth, American vintners have captured only a tiny sliver of the wine market in China.
When measured by dollar sales, U.S. wines made up just 4 percent of the import market in China while French wines commanded a whopping 55 percent, said Walter Klenz, director of the Vincraft Group, a Sonoma winery investment firm. The data, from the first six months of 2011, came from official Chinese government statistics obtained by ASC Fine Wines Co., a wine importer based in China.
"France has been on the ground in Japan and China for literally decades ... and California is a relative newcomer," Klenz said. "It's a function of time, and it's a function of the amount of resources. It's going to take a lot of blocking and tackling."
Klenz is familiar with the difficulties of developing brand awareness in China, serving as managing director of Beringer Blass' worldwide wine operations in the early 2000s. Beringer entered the China market in the mid-1990s, but despite extensive efforts, the brand's exports never exceeded 5 or 6 percent of its business, in part because the domestic market was so strong, he said.
"It's expensive, but I don't think there's ultimately a better substitute than having people on the ground in China," Klenz said.
The high-end wine market in China was developed primarily through luxury hotels and Western-style restaurants, and early consumers there were largely expatriates. Wineries trying to reach directly to individual Chinese consumers must contend with drinkers who have a different palate than their American counterparts, experts said. In addition, there is a widespread perception in China that California wines are more expensive.