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Biltmore Estate in Asheville exploring wine market possibilities in China

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3/26/2012 - Biltmore Estate in Asheville exploring wine market possibilities in China
by John Boyle - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- Three years ago the Biltmore Estate embarked on an ambitious plan to have its wine on sale in all 50 United States.

That was strictly a domestic ploy, an effort to boost market share from coast to coast, and it's going great.

But if the estate plays its chardonnays right, it might be expanding into the mother of all markets: China.

The Biltmore Estate's president for government and agricultural relations, Chuck Pickering, is part of a 40-business trade delegation visiting China, which has a population of 1.3 billion.

The idea is to help American businesses "strike new deals, strengthen business ties, expand their market and support jobs for Americans," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This is going to be a good opportunity to understand what the market opportunity is in China," said Jerry Douglas, president of the Biltmore Estate's wine operation. "Everybody is excited about the emerging consumer market there and how that's been changing over the last 10-15 years."

The Biltmore Estate is in year three of a five-year plan to expand its Biltmore brand wine sales. When it started, Biltmore wines were on sale in eight states; now it's up to 26 and should reach 35 by the end of June.

"We have a desire to expand our business opportunities outside the 8,000 acres of the estate, and wine is on the leading edge of that," Douglas said.

The estate sells 175,000 cases a year now, producing wine at four different price points that's sold through chain grocery stores, retailers and restaurants. Biltmore has been selling wine commercially for 27 years, with an annual growth rate of 8 percent.

The trade mission will run through Wednesday, with stops in Chengdu and Shanghai, where participants will meet with dozens of Chinese producers, importers, buyers, distributors and investors.

"This is the largest USDA trade mission to date," Michael Scuse, acting undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, said in a statement. "China and the United States share a special relationship, and we embrace this opportunity to demonstrate that our U.S. farmers, ranchers and producers are reliable suppliers of the highest-quality food and agricultural products. At the same time, USDA and our federal partners will continue to aggressively work to expand export opportunities and reduce barriers to trade."

Leaders from six state departments of agriculture, including representatives from North Carolina, will also attend, along with other USDA officials. The companies attending range from cranberry marketers and vegetable growers to seafood distributors and pork producers.

The USDA notes that Chinese demand for bulk commodities like soybeans and cotton is high, and demand for American products such as meat and processed foods continues to grow. U.S. agricultural exports to China were $22.8 billion in fiscal year 2011 and exports from China to the United States were $9.3 billion.

The USDA's largest overseas presence today is in China, with seven offices in five cities.

Douglas said the Biltmore Estate is just now putting out feelers about tapping into the market. He did not know yet how the estate may explore selling or distributing wine in China.

The estate has 90 acres of vineyards, which produces 18 percent of the estate's total wine production. The estate partners with growers in California, where it also has some production, while some grapes are crushed and sent back to the estate as unfermented juice that is finished and bottled on the estate.

Asked if the estate would consider making Biltmore Estate-labeled wine in China for distribution there, Douglas said, "You never say never, but that's not something we're looking at right now."

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