Chinese-owned Prince William winery, La Grange, begins exports to China

October 16, 2012

Virginia wine is seen by many as the epitome of all things local: grapes grown in Virginia, often produced on site and consumed largely by those who visit the wineries.

But, like so many things these days, local charms can become global exports — something that’s especially true for Prince William County’s sole winery, which has begun to export bottles in small numbers to China in the hope that it will be able to get in on the burgeoning market.

For the Winery at La Grange in Haymarket, the development of a Chinese market is somewhat fitting. The property with the French name is anchored by a historic 19th-century home (now a tasting room), and the winery was started by local investors in 2005 before being sold this year to Beida Jade Bird, a Chinese company with offices in the District that primarily focuses on international education.

Although the approximately 2,400 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that the winery sent overseas in August won’t mean big profits, La Grange hopes it means getting in on the ground floor in a market expected to grow exponentially in the coming years.

Plus, the lesser-known Virginia wines have an advantage there. In China, “we’re going neck-and-neck with California,” said Fletcher Henderson, La Grange’s general manager and an assistant winemaker. He said that even though the average American drinks about 14 liters of wine per year, making it the biggest wine market in the world, the Chinese traditionally know little about wine, preferring beer and liquor in social situations. The Chinese drink about one liter per year, Fletcher said.

But as wealth and the Chinese economy has grown, so has interest in imports, particularly from France. “Think if they bumped it to three liters per year,” Henderson said, noting a Chinese population of around 1.3 billion.

Introducing Virginia wine as the Chinese market develops is good business, said Jing Xu, who represents Beida Jade Bird at the winery.

Xu said that his company’s job is not just to sell the wine but also to educate Chinese consumers about what it is and where it comes from. The La Grange label — with a historic Virginia home and the District as a top tourist destination for many Chinese — enables the company to talk about history and roots in the Washington region, which connects with the Chinese consumer perhaps even more than the red or white liquid the bottle contains.

The company bought La Grange because it was along Interstate 66, relatively close to the District, and represented an opportunity to join the growing Virginia wine industry, Xu said. California wine is well established, which means plots of land are harder to find and good investment opportunities are scarce, Xu said.

The small number of cases the winery exported is just a start. Beida Jade Bird is part of a much larger conglomerate of businesses in Asia, and the company can leverage its other businesses to help. For example, the company is also affiliated with a distributor, Beijing Yayin Fine Wines Company, which is obligated to sell La Grange wine.

Things are going well so far, Xu said, and he hopes that more exports are to come.

“The definition of a good wine is any wine you like,” Henderson said. “And you can say that in any language.”

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