When travel agents and their clients think "wine country," they more than likely think of California's Napa Valley, the Burgundy region of France or even Chile or Australia.
One of the last places in the world to come to mind might be China, but new operator China Wine Tours is hoping to change that, luring U.S. wine aficionados across the Pacific with commissionable, escorted tours and customized short breaks.
The Redlands, Calif.-based tour operator will offer scheduled departures of a 10-night, escorted itinerary combining stops at major historical and cultural sites with visits to wineries and vineyards in China's rapidly emerging wine country. The first departure is tentatively scheduled for fall.
The company also offers custom add-on tours for travelers headed to China independently.
"Our tours are designed to showcase the growing wine industry in China, which is producing many fine wines, while also taking in the ancient and renowned sites everyone wants to see," said George Aballi, U.S. sales representative for China Wine Tours.
Aballi's company, Connection to Cruise, is partnering with the U.S. office of China Tours Inc. to offer the China Wine Tours itineraries.
"It's the ultimate insider's journey that will intrigue and surprise dedicated wine enthusiasts and the general traveler alike," Aballi said.
In vino veritas
Wine-producing centers in China include Zhangjiakou in Hebei province, Yibin in Sichuan, Tonghua in Jilin and even the Beijing area. Sommelier Paolo Wakham, member of the International Court of Master Sommeliers, will lead the tours. He has called China "the new frontier of the international wine world."
Wineries visited on China Wine Tours trips will include Shanxi Grace Vineyard in Taigu -- widely regarded as China's best -- Dynasty Winery in Tianjin, Longhui Winery near Beijing, Land Sun Vineyard in Yantai and China Silk Winery in Urumqi.
According to China Wine Tours founder Marc Curtis, Grace Vineyard is the leader in what he termed China's "quality, small-production wineries."
For the last century, China's relatively new wineries have been more concerned about quantity than quality, he said.
"But Grace Vineyard has focused their efforts on producing wines that make a difference," Curtis added. "It is owned by C.K. Chan, a businessman in Hong Kong. His goal is to make a name for his family above making a profit at the winery."
Although grapes have been fermented into liquor in China for nearly 5,000 years, the country does not have a traditional "wine culture" in the Western sense. Its modern-day, European-style wine industry is quite new.
The country's first true wineries were established in the late 19th century. Today, some 500 wine producers annually produce approximately 58 million gallons of wine, mainly cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay. By some measures, that makes China the world's sixth- or seventh-largest producer.
However, domestic Chinese consumption of wine remains low at 12 ounces per person, per year, according to liquor industry consulting firm Bon-wine Culture Consulting Co. in Guangxi, China. That may change soon, said Curtis.
"It's a fast-growing market, and the Chinese are very good at moving quickly in areas where there is a large business potential," he said.
In the meantime, China perhaps is the final fertile frontier for wine trailblazing.
"It's unlikely that anyone would go to China just to tour wineries, and that's why we created the tours based around our motto, 'Taste the Culture of 5,000 Years,' "said Curtis. "Since China is in the infant stage of producing fine wines, it's a unique adventure for those who enjoy wine and want something very different from the usual wine tours being offered in other countries."
Thus, in addition to the winery visits, China Wine Tours includes sightseeing stops at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Great Wall, the Terra-Cotta Warriors of Xian and the ancient walled city of Pingyao.
The program includes all meals in China, cultural and acrobatic shows and visits to various artisan workshops. Hotels, all in the four- and five-star category, include the Jade Palace in Beijing, the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel in Xian and the Yantai Binhai International Hotel in Yantai.
The 10-night wine tour is $3,199 per person, double, and includes transpacific air. The rate does not include about $230 in taxes and a $100 tourist visa fee.
China Wine Tours pays travel agents a commission of $300 per person booked.
For more information, visit www.chinawinetours.com or call Aballi at (909) 793-0328.
To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].