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By Jim Boyce | Building China’s top wine importer and distributor from scratch might seem achievement enough for most people but represents just one episode in the colorful life of Don St Pierre, whose memoirs are a turbulent tale of no-holds-barred business fights, philandering, profanity and calling people out. No one familiar with St Pierre, who steered ASC Fine Wines to the top, will be surprised by the title Jeeps, Pretty Ladies & Wine. If they are, it’s only because they expected him to instead use the title from one of his talks, Cars, Broads and Wine.
I did a Q&A with St Pierre this week, but first a few agenda items, starting with the book’s blurb:
This story is one of business adventures, baseball, international travels, escapades with the fairer sex, and most of all the love between a father and son. Across 4 continents, 20 countries and 5 different businesses [St. Pierre] moved himself from the dirt floor farmhouse on an island in Quebec, Canada where he was born, to becoming the largest importer and distributor of wine in China.
I haven’t read the entire book but long excerpts show St Pierre is more Charles Bukowski than Charles Dickens as a writer, at least in his willingness to offend. St Pierre’s is a dog eat dog world and he’s quick to distinguish the good guys from the bad, with the latter, including “old China hands”, identified by name and evaluations like “dickhead”, “useless prick” and “asshole”. (I imagine many of his contemporaries will check to see if they merit a mention. I also imagine many will deny doing so.)
St Pierre is not shy about his sexual exploits and keeps a running record that will outrage many. Or in using profanity to the degree Californian Chardonnay makers use oak. And he dispenses business wisdom with locker room candor, including a belief that “if you dare to do something different and if you dare to become the best at it, someone will try to chop your dick off.” (That’s why my motto is be second best.) If you haven’t got my point, what I’m saying is politically correct this book is not. You’ve been warned.
You would probably guess that anyway from chapter titles like “Tehran, Iran (What Means This Word, Bullshit?)”, “One Bad Chinese Broad” and “Don Jr. Off To The Slammer.” The latter refers to the nearly one month his son / business partner spent detained in Shanghai in 2008 as part of a China Customs investigation into ASC, a particularly trying time for him (see the Q&A below).
That’s just one scary scene. Another is an intense row in Beijing with a Chinese golfing foursome, including a three-star general, that St. Pierre accused of cheating. Yikes. (There was also that time in the U.S., before St Pierre got into wine, when he became a target in the biggest seizure of illegal ammo in the nation’s history—until the authorities realized the 75 million bullets grabbed were legal and had to be returned.)
While the book covers St Pierre’s entire life, there is plenty about the wine business, both the good and bad, the victories and defeats. That includes confrontations with early partners and employees (“I could see he was a useless drifter, dumb as hell, tricky and devious,” he says of one) to creating a private label, Chateau St Pierre, in 1997 that eventually sold like gangbusters (“Don Jr. and I had to come up with a name, label design, cork type and quality, bottle design and a few other details to make a brand. Of course we knew shit about any of those things”) to the ASC warehouse burning down, all interspersed with womanizing and hanging out with buddies he loves as much as he loathes his enemies.
As a businessman, St Pierre is a doer, someone who has a high learning curve, tackles problems with gusto and is willing to take calculated risks. He also recognizes his shortcomings. His dream to become a baseball player? Despite all his efforts, he had only two of the five skills that made a complete player. “I wasn’t good enough,” he simply writes. And he recognizes the role of luck, like this fortuitous meeting in Beijing with Gernot Langes-Swarovski, who would turn into an investor, during a smoke break.
Such a lucky stroke was only possible because he was willing to take risks. You can’t win if you don’t play the game, as he might say.
St Pierre’s book spans a childhood spent throwing baseballs on a Quebec island to getting his big auto industry breaks in Detroit to settling in China, a journey that saw meant meeting the likes of premier Zhu Rongji and auto executive Lee Iacocca, not to mention a who’s who of the wine world. I expect the reactions among those who read his memoirs will be as diverse as the stories St Pierre tells. As he no doubt intended.
For the record, I first met him at a wine dinner in 2005, shortly after moving to Beijing. After the meal, he said something like, “You don’t know shit about wine. Sit down and I’ll explain some things.” We finished a bottle of Bollingers and a pack of Marlboros as he gave insights into the business.
Some five years later, I was on the Great Wall for that Robert Parker dinner he hosted, the most expensive I have attended. It remains the sole occasion I have heard “My Way” played on the harp, a song that seems a fitting theme for him.
And that brings me to two days ago.
“I’m living well on Phuket and golfing two to three times per week. And drinking too much wine once a week,” he wrote in an email. He added that his memoirs were out. I suggested an interview and sent some questions. Below are his answers, tamer than what you’ll find in the book, which is available on Amazon here.
You first came here as president of Beijing Jeep in 1985. What proved harder: building cars or selling wine in China?
Beijing Jeep was by far the more difficult business. I had to come up with solutions on my own, with no help from my bosses back home or from the Chinese partners. My letter to Premier Zhao Ziyang and my press campaign threatening to pull out [of the joint venture] was a huge gamble that worked. Beijing Jeep is a big part of the book.
You considered other businesses before deciding on wine. Why did you ultimately pick it?
My French name and being tired of ordering wine in restaurants that was on the list but not in stock. Also, strangely, our first four wineries all came from casual contacts with automotive friends. Walt Klenz at Beringer was the first to say okay, followed by Bollinger, [Australia’s] Petaluma and [Brunello producer] Col D’Orcia. All through automotive contacts.
And we heard that Premier Li Peng was discouraging the drinking of grain-based alcohol and encouraging the drinking of fruit-based alcohol, i.e. wine. I also believed that China would accede to the WTO [it did so in 2001] and that would mean lower duties. Wine was a no-brainer, even for me and my son, non-wine people.
We are spoiled in Beijing for wine, spirits, beer and food. What was the scene like in the days of Beijing Jeep? And when you began ASC?
There was only one decent restaurant in the mid-1980s, Justine’s in the Jianguo Hotel. And no place to buy wine from. I only drank Johnnie Walker Black Label in those days.
Availability was a little better in 1996 when we started ASC, but not much. Montrose was around but didn’t have much of a selection and they were lousy at getting what they had to the market place.
An ASC turning point was investment by Gernot Langes-Swarovski. What was “plan b” without that money?
Our problem was that our business was growing too fast and resulting in, guess what, cash flow problems. I believed then and now that if I hadn’t found Gernot, I would have found someone else. The business was solid.
People talk about “passion” in the wine business but success in China requires a lot more than that. What were the crucial factors for ASC?
One, our ability to identify and hire good people. Two, having both me and Don Jr. on the ground knowing how to run a business and motivate people. Three, our superior portfolio of wines. And four, paying attention to details, details, details.
In just a few months in 2008, you faced the Customs crisis, held a Robert Parker wine dinner on the Great Wall and were in talks to buy Sino-French vineyard in Hebei, just to name a few things. Could you tell us about what must have been an incredibly stressful period?
The only stressful one was Don Jr.’s detention, the toughest time in my life. And the truth was that he would have been released in 29 days regardless of what I did to get him out. [People could be detained up to one month without being charged.] It was then that I decided I had enough of China and started planning to get out. [Suntory bought a majority share of ASC about 18 months later.]
Having Parker for dinner on the wall was a delight, not any kind of problem. And the failed vineyard purchase was probably a blessing. I hear the Taiwan buyers still haven’t sold a bottle of wine. Or at least not many. [The wines are still not commercially available though some are very good.]
Will you finally admit the ASC logo is awful?
Nope. The bamboo was my idea and mandate, signifying “bend, but don’t break.”
What are the wines of choice for Don St. Pierre Sr. these days?
Drinking mainly Burgundies, whites and reds, and mainly from one of our old partners, Louis Jadot. And, once in a while, Domaine Romanee-Conti.
You can buy Don St Pierre’s Jeeps, Pretty Ladies & Wine here.