RIP Cao Kailong | Former wine bureau chief helped Ningxia’s industry rise

RIP Cao Kailong, a key figure in the rise of Ningxia’s wine industry during the past decade.

Cao Kailong was born in 1965 in Haiyuan County, close to Zhongwei City, where the southern reaches of Ningxia’s current winemaking industry has emerged in recent years.

Perhaps it was destiny that Cao not only witnessed the barren lands of his youth transform into vineyards but also helped create that reality. Or that Cao’s early positions, from 1994 to 2001, were in government organizations focused on poverty alleviation, given that the wine industry is seen as an important part of raising living standards in Ningxia.

Cao left for Beijing in 2009 for three years to work in Ningxia’s office there and then returned home in March 2012 to take on the critical role of heading the newly established Bureau of Grape and Floriculture Industries. The bureau would immediately launched projects that created a momentum felt to this day. Cao would also become part of the Helan Mountain Industry Park Management Committee, now a major driver of the trade, serving as full-time deputy director in 2017 and 2018.

During his tenure, Cao was active in initiatives such as building a sprawling nursery for local wineries to source vines, developing a Ningxia winery classification system, organizing trade fairs, conferences and wine tours, and helping to build the region’s wine tourism resources.

He went overseas with fact-finding teams to regions as distant as France, Argentina and New Zealand, joined OIV conferences around the world and presented Ningxia wine at a Chinese Food Festival at the United Nations in 2018.

Cao welcoming Ningxia Winemakers Challenge contestants in 2012.

I was involved in several projects headed by Cao, starting in March 2012 with a wine tasting in Nanjing. The biggest were a pair of contests, from 2012 to 2014 and 2015 to 2017, that brought 55 winemakers from 20 nations to the region. I know of no other wine region in the world that has attempted anything nearly so ambitious and it is a testament to Cao’s vision.

Cao reflected a great deal on the future of wine in Ningxia and would mull ideas back and forth before coming to a solution. But I also saw him in less strenuous moments — barrel tasting in a cellar, chatting over dinner, sharing a ganbei (bottoms up) — when his chuckle would induce smiles from those nearby.

Once, we spent a day visiting wineries in the south and he made a side trip so I could taste the snacks unique to his home county. He was pleased to share them–that carefree laugh said it all–and, I guess, pleased with how things had changed for the better there since his youth.

Those who have been following Ningxia’s wine trade know how much has changed for the better during the past ten years and, even as he fought illness in recent years, how much of a role Cao played. RIP, Cao Kailong.

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