Helping the little guys? Grace Vineyard in China to sell Sonata wine solely via Internet

By Jim Boyce

Whether in terms of quality, marketing or technology, Grace Vineyard has been a leader in China’s wine industry for the past decade. The next foray for this Shanxi province-based operation will involve a new blend of wine and marketing as Grace releases its Sonata label exclusively via email in an initiative that may, in part, give the country’s smaller wineries some leverage in a market dominated by a few massive producers.

CEO Judy Leissner says 3000 bottles of the 2010 vintage will go on sale in May at rmb399. She says Grace’s Yean Yean Lee has attempted to “make a very different style of wine from our existing line” via open fermentation, natural yeast and a blend of 45% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, just under 10% of Marselan and a touch of Cabernet Franc.

Leissner says the idea for email-only sales came from the mailing lists used to market and sell the so-called ‘cult’ Napa wines, although her plan has a twist.

“I think at the moment, to launch wine futures in China is immature since, for one thing, we haven’t been able to build trust between producers and consumers. Secondly, I don’t think our wines can age for long,” says Leissner. “Instead, I advocate that wines should be launched [in China] when they are about ready to drink, as in China very few people have the ability to age the wines at home.”

Leissner says she plans to organize dinners in several cities to allow people to taste the wine before it is launched and to make Weibo an important part of the outreach. In May, Grace will release a link for people to join the Sonata mailing list, with the wine sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Delivery of the wine is slated for June. The minimum order is six bottles, the maximum twelve, with delivery available throughout China.

Leissner sees the project as an experiment: a new branding method, a way to possibly increase ties between producers and end users and a way to test the level of trust between Grace and its customers. It might also be a way for China’s smaller wineries to have a fighting chance in a market dominated by the marketing power and sheer size of China’s major producers.

“Ultimately, if this works, maybe more little wineries in China can find a way to survive,” she says.

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