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"A rising upper middle class is embracing wine as they embrace all Western consumer items," says Stephen Reiss, an author, a blogger, and a certified wine educator (yes, certified) based in Aspen, Colorado. Reiss, who was a member of an influential 1996 U.S. wine delegation to China, says this upper middle class is driving the development of the wine market - albeit in an awkward way. "Many Chinese people are willing to buy expensive wines, but many have no appreciation for what they are buying. Right now, they are mostly label drinkers, trying to score a taste of any well-known wine so they can check it off their list."

Though surely there are many legitimate aficionados among the estimated 300,000 regular wine drinkers in China, Reiss's point is well taken. Plenty of Chinese wine fans do seem to be label hunting, stalking the most famous names and vintages - out of Bordeaux, especially. It's not surprising, then, that Chinese buyers have recently become prominent on the auction market, where the world's finest wines are bought and sold. When the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, auctioned nearly 5,000 bottles of wine last year, a bottle of 1989 Château Petrus, a top- flight Bordeaux, which had been purchased for Paris's city-hall functions during Jacques Chirac's tenure as mayor of that city, sold for more than $5,000. The losing bidder was the Antique Wine Company in London, one of the major players in the auction market. The winner was Liu Fei Fei, a relatively unknown wine merchant from Beijing.

Still, the losing bidder isn't holding a grudge. An Antique Wine Company official told the International Herald Tribune that in the past few years, he's sold more highend wines, including from Château Petrus, to clients in gambling-rich Macao alone than to clients in any other single country.