Is Grace Vineyard the Yao Ming of China’s wine scene?

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I was going through old Grape Wall newsletters (subscribe for free here), spotted a short piece called ‘Grace Vineyard is the Yao Ming of China wine from a year ago, and realized I never posted it to this site. Here it is, followed by a few comments:

“When Yao Ming became the top NBA draft pick in 2002, and then an all-star multiple times, many people hoped a steady flow of Chinese players would follow and find similar success. That hasn’t happened and China has so far been a one-shot wonder.”

“You could make a similar case for Grace Vineyard. Established in Shanxi in 1997, and with a first vintage in 2001, it quickly earned a reputation for quality and raised hopes others would soon catch up and join, if not surpass, it. More than a decade later, Grace remains the top quality producer in China.”

That’s the opening of an upcoming story in [a] trade magazine…. I don’t argue that we lack good made-in-China wine. We don’t. There are dozens of local operations that produce a decent drop.

What I argue is none come close to the overall performance of Grace. Most good wine in China is made in small quantities (thousands or tens of thousands of bottles), is pricey (often rmb500 and up) and is hard to find.

Grace, on the other hand, makes some two million bottles per year, has wines that start at rmb60, and sells nationwide via its mailing list, its own shops and its distribution partner Torres.

Grace plays the game on a different level. It doesn’t just have one or two wines but more than a dozen labels. It hasn’t endured just a few vintages but more than fifteen years. And it continuously experiments with everything from screw tops to new vineyards to grape varieties like Marsellan and Aglianico.

I’ve enjoyed wine from Kanaan (Ningxia), Bolongbao (Hebei) and Yuhuang (Ningxia) this year. I’ve included wines from Great River Hill (Shandong) and 1421 (Xinjiang) in tastings as they combine quality, value and availability. But during the past decade, no one but Grace has brought Yao Ming-level skill to the China wine game.

So, has this situation changed since I wrote that about a year ago?

We do see more good wines than ever in China, but they tend to come from vineyards focused almost entirely on Cabernet or Cabernet blends, and no one is near the diversity and creativity of Grace. Since a year ago, Grace has released not just one but four sparkling wines — a Cabernet Franc, a Chenin Blanc, and an entry-level and reserve Chardonnay — that are generally good and fairly priced. It has released that above-mentioned Aglianico, a commercial first for China as best I know, as well as a Syrah and Marsellan. And it has plenty of plans in motion, including for a Tempranillo and a Sauvignon Blanc. That’s on top of its regular portfolio. It’s a Yao Ming that’s added a few new moves to its game.

This isn’t to say Grace makes the best wine or wins every competition it enters or has the fanciest cellar or winery or packaging. What it means is Grace makes decent wines (a large range of them). It makes them accessible in terms of price and distribution. It excels in everything from creative marketing to innovative projects. And the result is what seems to be a practical and sustainable business model. (Making decent wine and making decent wine *and* a profit are very different things.) While the overall wine scene is improving by leaps and bounds, Grace Vineyard continues to be one to watch.

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