When dignitaries from Tacoma and Kitakyushu, Japan, pop the Champagne corks this summer, they will toast the golden anniversary of their Sister City relationship.
But in those 50 years of youth baseball and cultural exchanges, no business relationships have blossomed between the two cities.
Similarly, as far as anyone can remember, no Pierce County business has found a regular customer for its products in any of Tacoma’s other sister cities in Israel, Cuba, Norway, Korea, South Africa, Morocco, the Philippines, Taiwan or Russia.
Until now – after three recent delegations from Fuzhou, China, popped the corks on some bottles of the bold red Montage at the tasting room of Stina’s Cellars in University Place.
Consequently, two Fuzhou importers have placed orders for a combined 224 cases of four Stina’s varietals and blends. And one bullish importer e-mailed the Port of Tacoma last week and asked: What’s the maximum capacity of the winery? I want to know how much I can get.
Not bad for the mom-and-pop-and-son winery which produced its first commercial run of 700 cases in 2006 from a coffee shop-size warehouse behind the bowling alley in Narrows Plaza.
“It blew my mind,” vintner Perry Preston said.
Expect more of this. Preston’s winery becomes the first Pierce County business to benefit from the fruits of an 18-month pilot project launched last year between the Port of Tacoma and the City of Tacoma to marry local businesses with Fuzhou importers.
Other Pierce County products getting a look from Fuzhou importers include scrap metal, industrial coatings, snack foods, coffee and organic bug repellent, said Michael Fowler, the economic development liaison between the two countries.
“We looked around for companies that were viable here in the U.S. that were doing well and had potential over there,” Fowler said. “With the Chinese economy in the stage that it is – where there are more millionaires there than here – there’s a substantial market for luxury items.”
Like wine. And when you talk about wine in Pierce County, “Perry is ‘the’ Pierce County winery,” Fowler said.
In the port city of Fuzhou, where locals can buy wine at Wal-Mart for $1 a bottle, Stina’s Cellars will target the luxury buyer at $35 to $40 a bottle, Fowler said.
Preston can hardly believe it.
“When I got the call about the tastings I was like, well, it was worth taking a chance on,” Preston said. “The market over there is expanding, and I want to expand. Hopefully, we’ll be able to expand together. And it was just one city, instead of all of China. If it would have been all of China, I would have said, ‘No thanks.’”
About a month later Preston learned that the population of Fuzhou tops 6.6 million – slightly larger than the state of Washington.
To say Perry and Penny Preston, and their son, Ethan, grew Stina’s Cellars from humble beginnings doesn’t do justice to their story.
The old joke in the wine industry goes, “Q: How do you make a small fortune in the winery business? A: Start with a large fortune.”
It didn’t happen like that for the Prestons. Perry grew up in Prosser – wine country in Eastern Washington – where he picked grapes one summer. While dating, and in their early marriage years, Perry and Penny made trips to California’s wine country.
Then in 1996, Penny Preston made a batch of homemade wine from blackberries.
Perry, 44, says he can’t describe how bad it tasted. The next year he gave it a try with grapes bought from the Columbia Valley. He won an amateur winemaking contest. By 2005, the Prestons decided they had something worth selling. But he hasn’t given up his day job as a baggage handler for United Airlines. Yet.
“China wasn’t part of my original business plan,” Preston said. “We’ll do about 1,200 cases this year. But if this takes off … if it opens up the market there like I hope it does, I’ve got a huge opportunity for expansion. There’s really not a whole lot of downside.”
Which, Fowler notes, is the goal of the pilot trade project. If the project pays off in other business relationships, Port and city policymakers should pop the champagne, give a toast and think about making the project permanent.
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785