WESTFIELD - Sen. Charles Schumer ventured into the sprawling hills of wine country Friday in a show of support for the region's wine industry.
The New York Democrat spoke at the Johnson Estate Winery in Westfield to urge the federal government to pressure China to crack down on its counterfeit wine products.
Those "cheap fakes," he said, are hurting the state's bid to enter China's booming wine market.
Schumer Visits Johnson Estate
"Many of the best exporting opportunities of our wine and our high-end wines ... is in China," Schumer said. "China has become the fifth-largest consumer of wine. As China's more affluent and middle-class and upper-class grow, so does their demand for wines."
One wine in particular that has become a major seller in China is ice wine, a process in which grapes are harvested while frozen on the vine. But because of its high-quality end result, ice wine is also becoming one of the most counterfeited sellers in the world's most populous country.
"China and its ice wine should be ripe for the picking for Western New York winemakers," Schumer said. "But cheap Chinese counterfeit wines are rigging that game and make it impossible for wineries like Johnson Estate to enter and compete in the profitable market in China."
New York Sen. Charles Schumer speaks at Johnson Estate Winery in Westfield on Friday in support of the region’s wine industry. To view video from the event, please visit www.post-journal.com.
P-J photo by Eric Tichy
Fred Johnson, owner of Johnson Estate, said he fears once ice wine from New York is sold in China, it will fall victim to cheap knock-offs, many of which bear the same labels as quality ice wines.
Such is the case with Canadian ice wines, where Chinese companies will buy up expensive wines, use the product, and then fill the empty bottles with cheap alternatives - a mixture of water, sugar, honey or table wine.
The product is then sold at a fraction of the cost, hurting potential sales and skewing the real thing.
Below is a letter sent by Sen. Charles Schumer to: U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk; US Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Customs and Border Protection Commissioner David Aguilar; Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton; Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Administrator John Manfreda; National Intellectual Property Rights Center Director Lev Kubiak.
Dear Representative, Secretary, Commissioner, Director, Administrator and Director,
I write to express concern about counterfeit wines sold in China. Cheap Chinese fakes are driving down prices, making it difficult for authentic, high-end U.S. wines - including New York ice wines - to sell in China. I urge you to press China to shut down the production and sale of counterfeit, adulterated and mislabeled wine.
According to an International Wine and Spirit Research study, China has become the fifth-largest consumer of wine. With China's growing upper class, there is an increasing demand for top-quality vintages. I want your help to ensure that New York's outstanding ice wines have the opportunity to meet that increasing demand.
U.S. wine exports to China grew by 42 percent last year, but the surge in sales of counterfeits in China threatens to undermine future export growth. Loss of consumer confidence in the authenticity of wines sold in China has the potential to sink U.S. exports of ice wine before they truly take off.
I also am concerned about Chinese fakes finding their way into the U.S. market. Counterfeit, adulterated or mislabeled wines pose serious health and safety risks to consumers and I urge you to continue enforcement efforts targeting counterfeits.
U.S. wineries and New York ice wine producers cannot fight the sale of counterfeit, mislabeled wines alone. For this reason, I respectfully request that you work with Chinese officials to crackdown on companies producing and selling counterfeit and mislabeled wine. I also ask that you work with Chinese officials to educate consumers about the importance of buying authentic, high-end wines and the dangers of counterfeits. In these tough economic times, we cannot stand idly by while cheap Chinese fakes hurt U.S. wine producers' bottom line and undermine their ability to grow exports.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I ask that you please keep me apprised of developments on this issue.
Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator
"It's not even real wine," Johnson said. "They're selling them with real labels. I know it's happening. You try to learn from other people's mistake."
The third generation winemaker said he is eager to jump into the rich China wine market, where ice wine can sell for as much as $200 a bottle. The expansion could mean more business and more jobs.
Bill Merritt of Merritt Estate Winery said he has an associate in China selling his wine, and noted that store owners have expressed hesitation buying wine made from North America.
Merritt, however, said much of the wine currently sold there is counterfeited. It's Canadian wine made in China, he said.
"I've got to tell you, I think it's a real problem," Merritt said. "How serious? I don't know. It was only one guy going into a few stores."
Schumer said he has called on the U.S. Trade Representative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Customs and Border Protection to pressure China from selling the fake wines.
"I am here to call on our federal officials to pressure China to put a cork in their cheap counterfeit wines so that New York wineries can compete fair and square," he said. "... New York wine cannot compete with cheap fakes."