U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke signed an agreement Monday in Hong Kong that creates new opportunities for U.S. wines and wine-related businesses. The head of Washington's wine commission is headed there this week.

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RAISE a glass of Washington wine. Join one of the state’s leading industries in toasting an agreement signed this week to promote U.S. wines in Hong Kong and Asia.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was in Hong Kong Monday to help open Asian markets to American wines and wine-related economic opportunities.

Washington’s former governor is leading the Obama administration’s first Cabinet-level trade mission to Asia, with stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Jakarta. Locke will be followed by Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, who will attend Vinexpo Asia-Pacific 2010, a regional version of the wine trade show in France’s Bordeaux region.

Before Pollard returns home she will stop in Toyko to honor a restaurant celebrated for its support of Washington wines. Encouraging the promotion of quality wines with local and regional cuisine is a key element of growing business in Asia.

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A year ago, Donald Tong, the Hong Kong commissioner for economic and trade affairs in the U.S., spoke to a Seattle trade luncheon, where he laid out the potential for what became the agreement signed by Locke.

Hong Kong set the stage for new opportunities by dropping a 40-percent import duty on wine. By the end of 2008, the value of imported wines had jumped 82 percent over 2007. Competition is intense. Seven other international wine-producing regions have signed agreements with Hong Kong.

Washington is home to more than 350 wine-grape growers and more than 650 wineries. The wine industry employees an estimated 19,000 people, a tally that includes marketing, sales, distribution, and tourism.

Hong Kong is eager to promote the use and enjoyment of wine, related tourism and the development of wine auctions and better storage facilities.

Washington’s fourth-largest fruit crop covers 36,000 acres. Plenty for Hong Kong to enjoy, along with the 50 other foreign countries that have a taste of the state’s wine trade.

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