China Uncorked

I’ve finally gotten around to reading the Wall Street Journal item on retired basketball star Yao Ming getting into the wine business. Specifically, Yao is launching a label for the Chinese market called Yao Family Wines. Reports WSJ,

Distributed by French beverage giant Pernod Ricard SA, bottles in the first 5,000-case run will be labeled simply Yao Ming and aimed at the top end of the market.

The wine, made from cabernet sauvignon grapes harvested in 2009 from California’s Napa Valley, is priced at 1,775 yuan (US$289) a bottle. (The price includes a 27% import duty and a 17% sales tax.) A second wine, called Yao Family Reserve, will be released later this year, and its small 500-case production will be even pricier.

It sounds absurd but there are reasons this can work. Yao Ming is a household name in a country of more than 1.3 billion. The Chinese (at least the wealthy ones) spend freely on wine—one in particular paid $539,280 for 300 bottles of Châtueau Lafite-Rothschild at an auction in Hong Kong. According to the Journal‘s Jason Chow, “wine consumption in China doubled from 2005 to 2009” and “bottled-wine imports—as opposed to cheap bulk wine that is imported in large tanks for bottling in China—grew 240% from 2008 to 2010, according to data from China Customs.”

The Sidney Frank principle is that if it costs a lot, it must be good. (When Absolut was the priciest vodka in the United States in 1996 at $16 a bottle, Frank debuted Grey Goose at $30 a bottle—and sales went through the roof.) Still, I shudder to think of spending $289 for a California Cab. A Dominus Estate 2008 Bordeaux Red Blend runs about $169. Something tells me Yao isn’t quite Dominus.

In fact, on a recent visit to the Bell Wine Shoppe in downtown Washington, I found a bottle of Caymus 2009 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that cost $80. And for $299 (a mere $10 more than Yao Ming), you can treat yourself to an actual 2001 Latour.

Growing up, Yao recalls his fellow Chinese drinking red wine with ice cubes. Some, I’ve been told, still mix wine with Coke. I just hope this didn’t happen with those auctioned-off bottles of Lafite-Rothschild.

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