Richmond berry winery cultivates Chinese market

Canada Berries looks to carve out niche amid growing Asian interest in B.C. wineries

Tom Yuan, founder and director for Richmond-based Canada Berries Enterprises Ltd., with the entire Canada Berries team at its Richmond winery | Chuck Chiang

The robust sales of B.C. wine to consumers in the Chinese-speaking world has led to some Chinese-Canadians skipping the proverbial middleman and going directly to the source – by purchasing local vineyards and trying to target specialized markets.

That was the strategy of Tom Yuan, founder and director for Richmond-based Canada Berries Enterprises Ltd. Yuan, who bought the winery’s 10-acre Richmond vineyard four years ago, said he made the purchase specifically because the farm, located on Blundell Road near Westminster Highway, was one of a select few that produce wine from berries rather than from grapes, the conventional source.

Yuan said he thinks berry wines – a rarity in both Chinese and western markets – would give his winery a niche that he can then expand upon as a “blue ocean” market free of competitors.

“Wine culture has not been around in the Asian mainstream consciousness for a long time, unlike the deep-rooted history it has in western culture,” Yuan said. “With berries, the awareness is even lower. So the initial market is guaranteed to be limited. But because it’s a niche market, with no one else doing what we do, it gives us a chance to create a new product category.”

The Chinese market remains a key one for B.C. wineries. According to the B.C. agri-food export overview for 2015, China was the top market for the $9 million local wine export sector. For Canadian wines overall, China remains a strong second-place finisher, with shipments in 2016 valued at $15.7 million – 19.6% of total exports.

Allison Boulton,  an independent international business consultant with 15 years of experience in the wine industry, said Chinese interest in local wineries, whether from partial investors or from those looking for full ownership, has been rising for a few years now.

“If you sat down and went down the list, you can find half a dozen wineries owned, partially owned, or are talking to Chinese investors for a partial or full buy,” said Boulton, who recently moved back to Vancouver from China. “It’s a business play; you are controlling your supply chain.”

Boulton added that wineries represent a “sexy” and “prestigious” industry that can be very attractive to Chinese and Chinese-Canadian investors, further adding to the allure of buying and operating a B.C. winery.

What could be a key selling point for Canada Berries’ berry wine, Yuan said, is the growing health consciousness of consumers. Blueberries, cranberries and blackberries are all known for high levels of antioxidants, and Canadian berries already enjoy a positive reputation in the Chinese market.

Wine, Yuan noted, is also regarded as a health product in China. So the combination of using berries for wine has a high chance of engaging health-conscious consumers in the Chinese-speaking world who are looking for an alternative to grape-based wines.

“If you look at the traditional character for the word ‘doctor’ or ‘medical studies,’ the bottom of the character incorporates the character for ‘alcohol’ or ‘wine,’” Yuan said. “So it shows the use of medicinal wines in traditional Chinese medicine and the image of wine’s healthy nature in 5,000 years of Chinese history. What we want to do is to bring an even better product to that market.”

Boulton agrees there is likely a market for berry wine in China, noting that “the market is so big that you are going to find some buyers.” But she also said a targeted approach like that of Canadian Berries  makes sense because China’s myriad rules and regulations, along with a plethora of competitors and fast-changing market landscapes, make it challenging for anyone looking to enter.

“As is everything with the Chinese market, it’s a long-term play,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. … Choose to go because it’s the right thing for you, for your brand, for your values, for your production capability, for your style of wine. Make sure you choose it with your business mind.”

That’s why, Yuan said, Canada Berries is also reaching out to other berry-wine makers in B.C., in an attempt to create a unified brand for Canadian products looking to enter the Asian market together.