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Red Nose Studio

Winemakers around the world believe that a potentially huge wine market may be fermenting in China. Now if only the Chinese would give up their juice.

Numbers and alcohol don't mix.

Take this statistic, for instance: Per capita, Americans consume 2,670 percent more wine annually than the Chinese do. Based on that, you'd figure that a lot of Americans would soon be joining the parade of Hollywood starlets who are heading to rehab. But you'd be wrong. In fact, the vast numerical difference between wine consumption in the United States and in China actually says less about Americans and more about Chinese preferences for adult beverages.

You see, per capita, Americans drink 2.77 gallons of wine per year. That would be a lot - too much - if you were to down it all at once. But drinking 2.77 gallons, or about 10 bottles of wine, over the course of a year is equivalent to having less than a glass a day. And a glass a day is supposed to be good for you. The Chinese, meanwhile, drink just one-tenth of a gallon of wine per year per capita. That's about half a typical 750- milliliter bottle. In other words, Americans aren't wine lushes, and the Chinese, who have long preferred beer and distilled spirits, don't drink that much wine.

 Fu Hongbing, though, is an exception to that rule. He's an executive in Shanghai working with Cooper Industries, a diversified Houston-based manufacturing company with facilities in China. Fu, like a growing number of middle- and upper-class Chinese, has developed an appreciation for tasty wine. He drinks "foreign wines," he says, especially "French wines, German wines, and Canadian ice wines."

Canadian ice wine? Canadian ice wine isn't even that easy to find in U.S. retail stores and restaurants. Plus, it's an expensive product. To make it, the grapes are picked immediately after the year's first frost, and, as such, 375-milliliter bottles of ice wine can fetch more than $60 in a wineshop. So how does Fu get his hands on the stuff? Well, that's the big surprise behind those per capita numbers. China as a whole is not yet a big market for wine, but thanks to importers catering to the newfound good tastes of the few by stocking big-city retail stores and high-end restaurants with fine wines, hundreds of thousands of Chinese are becoming consumers of some of the best wines in the world. And this new consumer interest, in combination with the government's backing of wine's health benefits, may spur the entire nation to follow suit.