SHANGHAI - As a dinner cruise carried Gov. Jerry Brown and a group of businesspeople, friends and campaign donors down the Huangpu River this past weekend, Michael Rue, a rice farmer from Marysville, sipped from his wine glass and saw in the Shanghai skyline a potentially lucrative market for his grain.
Rue and representatives of California's berry, beef and dairy industries have been engaged for the past week in China in a campaign to expand their access to a growing market.
Yet as Brown winds down his weeklong trade mission - speaking enthusiastically in city after city about California-Chinese trade - the work of Rue and a small, agriculture-based subgroup of Brown's party suggests how difficult certain elements of the relationship remain.
Though China became a net importer of rice last year, it prohibits rice from the United States. California's delegation had a discussion with Chinese officials in Beijing last week about restrictions on rice and other crops.
"It was kind of a tough meeting," said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
The Chinese have their own demands - they want the United States to allow fresh apple shipments from China, for example - and progress on either side is slow.
"The strategy is patience," Ross told members of her group. "That's what it takes when you're in agriculture and you want to get into new markets."
California did $1.7 billion in agricultural exports to China in 2011, led by almonds, pistachios, wine, walnuts and cotton. For many farmers in growing industries, the demand of China's emerging middle class can be surreal.
Layne Montgomery, co-owner of a small winery in Lodi, m2 Wines, was startled when a Chinese buyer approached him last year and purchased 650 cases of his wine, about one-fourth of his product.
"For us, it was a big whoop," Montgomery said. "These guys were legit. They paid us cash money up front."
Montgomery said a bottle of his zinfandel that sells for $28 in the United States will sell for the equivalent of $60 or more in China. He plans to visit Shanghai in May for the opening of a store in which his wine will be sold.
"I'm a little hesitant just because it's a great unknown," Montgomery said. "But at the same time it's pretty exciting. I mean, I'm 53 years old and this is the first time I've ever sold wine to a guy in China. So yeah, why the hell not?"
U.S. agriculture officials say they are working with Chinese officials to address concerns about potential pests in U.S. rice, a first step to establishing conditions under which American rice could enter the market.
Rue said he is optimistic. "I wouldn't be wasting my time here if I wasn't," Rue said. "But you also have to understand that these things take time."
California is the nation's second-largest producer of rice, behind Arkansas, and farmers in the Sacramento Valley believe an opportunity exists for them in high-end markets and specialty stores in China because of concerns about food safety in the country's domestic market.
The state exports rice to Japan, Taiwan, Korea and the Middle East, among other destinations, and a limited amount of rice passes through those markets and finds its way onto the shelves of Chinese grocery stores.
"The rice that's there right now, the U.S. rice, is not exactly jumping off the shelves, but that's because there's no promotion," said Jim Guinn, vice president of international promotion at the USA Rice Federation. "There's a portion of the population that has developed a distrust for the domestic food system. ... We think that's where the best opportunity may be for us."
Even for products that U.S. farmers are allowed to export to China, the Chinese market is not without its difficulties. China is a developing nation, and logistical problems range from antiquated distribution systems to a shortage of refrigeration.
"It's like a 7-foot center in basketball," Rich Sambado, whose family company packs cherries, apples and walnuts in Linden, said of the Chinese export market. "A lot of potential, but we haven't seen it quite yet."
California farm interests in China over the past week have lobbied government officials on inspection protocols, visited grocery stores and toured a cold-storage facility. Receptions featured California cheeses and wines, in part an effort to market those products to the Chinese media.
John Harris, a prominent Sanger rancher, lamented the long meetings and politicking required of U.S. farmers in China. Amid talk by other members of the trade mission about real estate deals and technology startups at a reception at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week, Harris stood at the side of the room with three Chinese men who raise and process hogs.
The hog farmers hope to start an operation in the United States, and Harris said he'd show them around the Valley if they came. International relations can be difficult for Chinese farmers, too, he said.
"Historically, a lot of people have been a little wary of foreign companies getting too big a foothold," Harris said. His own view, he said, is that of a "free-trader."
On the dinner cruise in Shanghai, Rue paused to photograph the skyline and said the weeklong trade effort was going "very well." He cited "a lot of fine meetings" and said he is taking the long view, even if he isn't selling rice in China yet.
"It's grinding away," Rue said. "You've got to be a little anticipatory about these kinds of things."
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.