Change of Grace: China’s top quality producer to partner with ASC?

By Jim Boyce | The rumor mill is working overtime these days and the favorite topic is Grace Vineyard: word is this Shanxi-based winery, widely seen as the nation’s most successful producer of the millennium, will soon announce a deal with importer and distributor ASC Fine Wines and end a partnership of more than a decade with Torres China.

Grace and Torres first partnered in 2002, according to this 2008 talk with managing director Alberto Fernandez. Torres boosted this Shanxi-based winery’s profile via sales in hotels, restaurants and retail shops and events, while Grace, under the leadership of CEO Judy Chan, also developed its own distribution network through branded stores, online shops, a wine club, a restaurant, and more. The two companies also partnered on making wines, with Mireia Torres twice joining Grace for harvest.

While Torres is a major distributor in China, on par with Summergate in terms of imports this year, ASC is far bigger presence although it remains to be seen if the deal will Grace will give it more channels and, in turn, sales potential. At the very least, the deal would allow ASC to fill a key portfolio hole, namely, the lack of a good Chinese wine producer. And there is also an intriguing x factor: ASC is owned by Suntory and that company’s expertise with spirits would be valuable to Grace given Chan’s determination to establish a distillery and produce whisky in Fujian province.

Even sans Grace, Torres would still have a Chinese label in Silver Heights from Ningxia. While Silver Heights’ portfolio is smaller, its wines are highly acclaimed, and there is more to come: two years ago, it moved production from a small shed on the outskirts of Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia, to a far larger operation near the base of the Helan Mountains. While it continues to focus on Cabernet-driven reds, it is also experimenting with Petite Verdot and plans to produce its first Pinot Noir next year.

For now, the parties involved are staying mum: when contacted, Torres and Grace declined comment while ASC said only that it will soon announce a partnership with a Chinese winery. But it does appear a deal is imminent and raises the issue of how the Grace brand would be positioned. Grace is already solidified as the rare Chinese winery that not only makes decent wines year in and year out, but does so with a sizable portfolio. And that portfolio has steadily grown with fun and quirky items such as its budget-friendly People’s Series wines, four different sparkling wines, and single-variety wines from lesser-used grapes in China, including Aglianico, Marselan and Syrah, with Tempranillo among those in the pipeline. That’s a lot with which to work.

Finally, on a personal note, these rumors can’t help but inspire nostalgia. Grace was among the first Chinese wines I tried and liked when I moved to Beijing over a decade ago. I have come to know Chan and followed Grace over the years, and appreciate the commitment to “pushing the envelope”, particularly with the sparkling wines and that Aglianico. And Torres has always been among the most professional distributors—the high staff retention says a lot about the company—with Fernandez being a no-nonsense commentator on the wine trade and a firm supporter of Chinese producers.

Given this, I’m glad my last experience of the Torres-Grace pairing was a positive one. It happened a few months ago at Torres’ shop in Beijing where I helped organize a tasting of Grace wines led by Chan and paired with pizza. It was a fun and informative and left good memories of a partnership that has done much for China’s wine scene:

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