By Jim Boyce | Founded in 1997, Grace Vineyard in Shanxi is arguably the most important winery of the millennium in China. Grace has consistently created a diverse portfolio of wines and sold them at reasonable prices thus becoming a go-to for many hotels, restaurants and consumers.
CEO Judy Chan took over Grace from her father in 2001 while in her early twenties and has been a tireless champion of her winery. She was also a founding contributor to Grape Wall in 2007. One of blog’s was to connect journalists and key trade people to ensure better coverage of China’s wine industry and no one inspired more interview requests than Judy.
Now it’s time for Grape Wine to interview her: here are 20 questions with Judy Chan as Grace celebrates 20 years of business.
How did you react in 2001 when your father asked you to move to Shanxi and take over Grace?
I was a bit overwhelmed. I wasn’t sure what I had got myself into but felt super confident that I would be okay.
2 What’s the most vivid memory from your first year working in Shanxi?
Culture shock. I didn’t know how to work or communicate. I didn’t know what my next step should be. Every day I felt like I was swimming in a huge ocean by myself. There was lot of frustration, mostly toward myself and my limits, and a lot of confusion.
3 How were Grace’s first commercial wines received by the public and by critics?
Horrible. The packaging was awful. People complained the wine wasn’t sweet. I didn’t know any critics then so there weren’t any reviews. Looking back, maybe that’s a good thing.
4 Remember that time you did stand-up comedy at a wine dinner?
I’ve always wanted to do it but still haven’t completed my skit yet.
5 We’ve seen wine regions grow in Ningxia, Xinjiang and Hebei over the past 20 years but Grace has remained isolated. Why?
Shanxi might be a bit isolated in the wine world but I don’t think Grace is. We have operations in both Shanxi and Ningxia.
6 What is the difference between consumers 15 years ago and now?
Wow, that’s a huge question. I could go on and on about it. Fifteen years ago, people hardly knew what was wine. They only knew Cabernet and Chardonnay, they judged the quality by looking for “tears” in the glass and at the punt of the bottle. Now you can see exactly what’s going on.
7 I see Deep Blue, one of your pricier wines, on more restaurant menus than any other Grace product. Why do people stock it so much?
It’s actually our most successful product. Easy to remember name and packaging. It’s at the right price point for entertainment: expensive enough to give face, not so expensive that it burns your wallet
8 Is it true that sometimes you wake up, go to the winery and there is equipment like the tractor missing?
Not anymore, thank God! [In the early days, the tractor would be “borrowed” by farmers and sometimes go missing for days.]
9 You partnered with Torres for over 10 years. What’s the funniest thing that happened with those guys?
We had so many funny moments. When I think of Alberto [Fernandez] and Damien [Shee or Torres], all I can think of are how they laugh and how we laughed together.
10 Two years ago, you released an Aglianico, a Syrah and a Marselan. What was your favorite and why?
I love the Aglianico. It’s elegant and subtle.
11. Maybe more importantly, why focus on such grapes when most wineries in China are addicted to planting Cabernet?
They are not imaginative? Just kidding. I think our focus is long term, not immediate reward. But it’s also because we are in a more secure position that allows us the chance to think long term
12 As you noted, you’ve also experimented with vineyards in Ningxia and Shaanxi. Any revelations?
Revelations? Both places are tough. Each has its own issues. No revelations, but every day I’m hit with the reality of how tough it is. Ask me again after another 10 years
13 Grace Vineyard became an MBA case study at Harvard Business School in 2008. Don’t you think Harvard should have given you an honorary degree?
I applied to Harvard for graduate school and they didn’t accept me so I suspect an honorary degree is a bit far fetched. What do you think I can do to get one!?
Grace opened its first restaurant in Fuzhou in 2011. How is that part of the business going?
It’s a critical part of our development. It’s our research site: a place with a captive audience. It allows us to study our target clients up close: what they like, why they like it, what makes them tick.
15 What’s the best Shanxi food and wine pairing?
Our Shanxi noodles, with both red and white wine.
16 Second best?
17 After 15 years, you are actually very bored with the wine industry, aren’t you?
No, why would I be? I love our industry. There are so many things to do. Consumers are evolving at light speed. Every day, I learn something new. I’m not bored with the industry, I’m bored with people who can’t think outside of the box.
18 I know you are interested in whisky. When can we expect a first blend from Grace?
Sigh, don’t mention it. I’m still stuck on getting a land permit.
19 Let’s say you can curl up with one glass of Grace wine, one glass of non-Grace wine and one book. What are you picking?
Erich Froom: “The Sane Society”. With our Angelina’s Reserve [sparkling wine] and Mas la Plana.
20 Your daughters are very much involved in Grace, from being the inspiration for wine names to helping with harvest. Do you see them some day taking over those vineyards?
I wish they would but I don’t mind if they don’t. I’m focusing on getting my team to have some ownership in Grace.
Also see this Grape Wall post on Grace’s 10th anniversary.