Throughout the summer months, the parking lot at Summerhill Pyramid Winery is teeming with tour buses – thousands of travellers a day visit this vineyard in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, many of them from across the Pacific.
It has taken 18 years, and several tried and failed collaborations, but this Kelowna, B.C.-based winery's relationship with its Chinese visitors now continues even after they fly back, with 30 per cent of its wine sales taking place in China.
Thanks to Summerhill's connections with several Chinese distributors and years of networking, "we can ship anywhere in China since 2010," explains the company's wine maker, Eric von Krosigk.
But Summerhill's export success is not a common story.
Canada's table-wine exports to China are negligible – 2013's volume equalled 1.4 million litres, or less than 4 per cent of all wine exports, according to the Canadian Vintners Association (CVA) – due to high costs and previous disinterest by Chinese wine connoisseurs. But the market is ripe, according to experts, and Canada's icewine reputation might provide the perfect gateway.
Canada is responsible for about 90 per cent of the global icewine market, and China is the largest consumer of this product, buying up $8.1-million, or 46 per cent of the market, in 2013, according to the CVA.
Now industry professionals are attempting to ride those coattails and introduce the Chinese to Canada's reds and whites.
"Icewine is usually a handshake order," explains Alice Chen, chief executive officer of Vancouver-based Export Ventures Group, a Vancouver-based export business that deals primarily in Canadian premium food and wine exports to China. "So it kind of opens the discussion because people know Canada as an icewine producing country, but once you do a smaller deal on the icewines, really people are consuming more table wine … and red wine would be 90 per cent of the table wine exported, from what we've seen."
When she was forming the company in 2010, Ms. Chen saw an opportunity for Canadian table wines as China's appetite for wine showed significant growth.
"I saw that the wine consumption curve was going straight up at that time," she said. "It's like the upswing of the hockey-stick curve in terms of foreign wine imports into China."
The appetite for foreign, and often more expensive, wines cooled off in 2012 after Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power and expressed his distaste for extravagant lifestyles, corporate gift giving and luxury spending, which had a chilling effect on wine sales.
"Even though now that I see the hockey stick [curve] has levelled off, it doesn't mean that there won't be another wave because in international trade things come in cycles," says Ms. Chen, "and we need to be ready."
Last September, the CVA launched its Red & White International Export Strategy for Canadian Wine, a plan to make Canada the premium producer of what are call "cool-climate wines" – a name that hints at Canada's icewine status to help attract Chinese consumers.
"What that is doing is leveraging our reputation for icewine and saying that our table wine, as a cool-climate producer, is a premium product," says Beth McMahon, the CVA's vice-president of government and public relations. "We will never be able to compete with low-cost wine exporting countries, so Canada has to maintain its premium position."
"One of our largest hurdles is being actually recognized; you go out to wine shows and many times people have never had a Canadian [table] wine, but maybe they've had icewine," she says. "It starts the conversation."
And that conversation among Chinese tourists can spread the word once they return home, which has immense value in attracting future visitors to Canadian vineyards, explains Ms. McMahon.
"Only about 10 per cent of Canadian wineries actually export wine, so tourism is something that can benefit all wineries," she says. "We recognize that value but we also recognize that if we have visitors coming from China, then those visitors in turn have an affinity for our region, they have this story to tell and they go back home and they want to share this experience with their friends."
Back at Summerhill Pyramid Winery, proprietor Stephen Cipes agrees the exporting route is not an easy one.
"Our wines are expensive because we have the highest labour, we have the highest cost per tonne of grapes – other than Champagne … and then, of course, there are all the middle men and the transportation cost."
"All of that stuff works against us," he acknowledges, "but what works really well for us is that it is a true triumph of taste."