This week, wine has just moved up another notch as an object of desire among the Chinese. Yao Ming, national basketball hero and homegrown celebrity, just launched 'Yao Family Wines'. Recently retired from the NBA's Houston Rockets, Yao has been seen attending business management classes at Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Antai College of Economics and Management and launching a sportswear line with Italian label Paul & Shark.
According to Wine Spectator, which interviewed Yao's winemaker, Tom Hinde, the 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon launched in China this week is a blend of 82 per cent cabernet sauvignon with merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot that has been aged about 18 months in oak.
Yao Ming 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will produce 5,000 cases, according to The Wall Street Journal. The wine will be priced in the United States at US$289 a bottle. A more expensive Yao Family Reserve with longer barrel ageing will also be released with a total production of only 500 cases. So far, it isn't clear whether Yao's wines will be available in Hong Kong or even through China's traditional wine retail channels.
The launch of Yao's wine this week was cleverly orchestrated. On Sunday in Shanghai, a magnum of his Cabernet Sauvignon was auctioned off to benefit the Special Olympics with a starting price tag of 60,000 yuan (HK$73,200). This event combined the launch of his own wine with a high-profile charity auction, which ingeniously allows the first magnum of his wine to be sold at a price that far exceeds its retail value.
Hollywood celebrities and musicians have long been attracted to wine. Antonio Banderas has shares in a Ribera del Duero winery called Anta Natura; director Francis Ford Coppola purchased his winery Rubicon (aka Inglenook) in the 1970s; Madonna established her Michigan winery Ciccone Winery in 1996; Sam Neill owns Two Paddocks in Gibbston, New Zealand, and is often in Hong Kong to promote his wines; Gerard Depardieu owns Chateau de Tigne in the Loire Valley. It was only a matter of time before a Chinese celebrity followed suit.
Californian wine producers should celebrate Yao's move. While Bordeaux, and more recently Burgundy, have long hoarded the limelight, this may well be California's chance to shine. With Yao as the de facto Californian wine ambassador, the United States has a fighting chance of sharing some of the spotlight with France, and specifically with Bordeaux. In Hong Kong, American wines have the second highest per litre price after French wines and their import value is just behind that of France. However, in China, American wines are way behind France and Australia in import value and they lag behind Italy, Chile and more recently Spain, according to October Chinese customs import figures.
Americans were late entering the market in Hong Kong and China, not because their wines were not present but because California winemakers didn't invest the time and effort getting to know the market as the Australians and the French have over the past few decades. However, they are trying to make up for lost time, most notably since the US economic downturn in 2008.
This week and next, we have a star-studded lineup of Napa Valley winemakers in town including Bart and Daphne Araujo of Araujo Estate Wines; Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars; Molly Chappellet of Chappellet Winery; Naoko Dalla Valle of Dalla Valle Vineyards; Janet Pagano of Ovid Napa Valley; Garen and Shari Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyard; Beth Novak Milliken of Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery. To find out more about where these winemakers can be found around town, ask your local retailer or e-mail Jaime Araujo at email@example.com.