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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.

"It's not an easy market to enter," said Debra Meiberg, who grew up in Sebastopol and now lives in Hong Kong, where she provides consulting services to California wineries that want to enter the China market. "I think California has a smaller presence in Asia than it should, and at present it's driven by Napa."

Meiberg said the wines she tasted as a judge at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair competition this year had more restrained, elegant styles that would appeal to an Asian palate than the wines she tasted there previously.

Dennis Barnett, president of L2S Wine Partners International, saw in China an opportunity to develop a product tailored to a consumer that has different needs and desires than American wine drinkers.

To suss out how to reach the growing group of potential wine buyers, Barnett conducted focus groups in China. Then, he partnered with Sonoma Wine Co. to develop a line of products, choosing flavor characteristics, brand names and lower alcohol content that the focus group participants favored.

Along the way, Barnett found that many Chinese wine drinkers fit into two groups: consumers who purchase bottles for $5 or less, and wealthy buyers who are willing to pay $1,000 to $10,000 for a bottle from Bordeaux or Burgundy.

"You have the very wealthy billionaires that don't know much about wine, and they enjoy showing off," Barnett said. "They're drinking it with 7UP, because they don't have a taste for wine ... Our approach, rather than try to compete with first-growth Bordeaux, we're focused on the emerging middle class that are very status-conscious and aspirational, and will become an economic force in China."

It appears to be working: His company is currently sold out of a line called "Napa Trail" that was developed for sale in China.

Healdsburg's Seghesio Family Vineyards took a different route when it entered the China market in 2008 by participating in a trade mission with the Wine Institute, which has led 11 such tours in the past decade. In June, a touring group represented 68 wineries and 95 wine brands, visiting Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Seghesio's export success was attractive to Crimson Wine Group, which purchased the winery in June, said Erle Martin, CEO.

"As a small independent family winery, to get a leg up on the exports like that was a really good decision, and one that we saw as a great opportunity for the balance of our portfolio," Martin said. "Zinfandel is uniquely American and uniquely Californian, so we see a great opportunity to expand the Seghesio brand in particular."

Still, California wines must work against high tariffs and compete with China's domestic offerings, which dominate 90 percent of the market.

"It's going to take time, but there's definitely opportunity in the numbers," Barnett said.

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.

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