“There are so many countries producing fine wine,” he said. “I don’t have to buy relatively expensive California wine. I could choose from New Zealand, Australia, Chile and South Africa.”
And Chinese drinkers have a growing array of homegrown brands to choose from. Expert winemakers have spent years harvesting cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc varietals at the foothills of the Helan Mountains in Ningxia, a region that borders Inner Mongolia. They have started winning international awards, even beating out French favorites.
Then the government began protecting its domestic players.
When the European Union put tariffs on Chinese solar panels in 2013, Beijing blustered back by opening an inquiry into whether European winemakers were dumping cheap, improperly subsidized bottles onto the Chinese market. It ended the investigation a year later, after the Europeans agreed to help train Chinese winemakers.
Sophisticated wine shops have sprouted up across Shanghai, the online retailer Alibaba now runs a yearly wine sale, and other sites will deliver cases to people’s doors within two days. In August, China got its first master sommelier, a distinction reserved for people who can pass a rigorous series of tests, including verbal and tasting exams.
It wasn’t like this when David Pearson made his first business trip to Beijing 15 years ago, intent on selling Chinese customers on his super-premium Napa wine Opus One. The rich drank French Bordeaux if they drank wine at all. He had to make the case for his California winery, a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
He found a natural audience.
“People will buy symbols of luxury — watches, cars, expensive bottles of wine — to demonstrate they have the means to do that,” said Mr. Pearson, the Opus One chief executive. “There was no middle market. You were either spending all your money on the highest quality of wine or you couldn’t afford to buy anything other than the least expensive wine.”
The change started when Xi Jinping became president in 2013 and began an anti-corruption campaign that zeroed in on illicit gift-giving. Wine imports dipped for a couple of years but then recovered as sellers began to learn how to market to a person who would buy a bottle at a time, not several cases.