Hong Kong House Salem Oregon

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PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLAMETTE VALLEY VINEYARDS

Wine enthusiasts have been trying to boost exports of Oregon wine to Hong Kong since the island powerhouse eliminated wine taxes in 2008. A new, largely symbolic agreement between Hong Kong and Oregon and Washington is the latest attempt to jump-start a trade that has yielded little.

Oregon wineries sold 1, 300 cases of wine to all of Asia outside of South Korea and Japan over 2008 and 2009, a paltry figure when you consider that China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Hong Kong are among the state’s biggest trading partners.

But Oregon wines have never been big sellers overseas. Only 2% to 3% of sales come from exports, mostly to Japan, England and Canada. And past ventures to sell Oregon wine in China have flopped. In 2004, three Oregon wineries sent 1, 250 cases to the mainland, only to experience frustrating processes and disappointing sales. “Most of it ended up sitting in warehouses, ” says Doyle Hinman of Henry Estate Winery in Umpqua.

“It’s easy to get excited about the sheer number of people in China and all of those young professionals with disposable incomes, ” says Katie Bray of the Oregon Wine Board. “But the palate just isn’t there yet to recognize the quality of lesser-known labels, and that’s what we have in Oregon.”

Hong Kong could yield better results. The economy there is thriving, and the wine market has exploded. Hinman says Henry Estate sales rose by 18% in Hong Kong in 2009. Willamette Valley Vineyards, which only began selling in Hong Kong last year, has sold 160 cases in Hong Kong and recently won an award there for its 2007 Riesling.

Willamette Valley’s sales director Erik McLaughlin calls Hong Kong “the most dynamic wine market in the world.” During a recent trip that started in Hong Kong, McLaughlin worked on export deals to China, Taiwan, Singapore, Cambodia and the Philippines. “It’s virgin territory, ” he says. “It’s a huge hurdle and a huge opportunity for Oregon wine.”

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