Don St Pierre Sr., one of the Chinese wine industry’s iconic characters, has died at age 82.
St Pierre made his claim to wine fame with importer and distributor ASC Fine Wines, founded in China in 1996 with his son Don Jr. But by then he was known here due to his time as leader of Beijing Jeep in the 1980s — the first joint venture in China’s modern auto industry — and for his rock ‘em sock ’em attitude.
Born in 1941 in Canada to a “dirt poor” family, St Pierre dreamed of playing baseball but instead led a life of global adventures that took him to Egypt, Indonesia, Iran and Japan, among many other places. And, of course, ultimately led him to wine in China, which might seem curious for a car industry executive. But St Pierre was looking far ahead.
When I asked in a 2018 interview why wine, he said, “My French name and being tired of ordering wine in restaurants [in China] that was on the list but not in stock.”
He added: “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 in 2001] and that would mean lower duties. Wine was a no-brainer, even for me and my son, non-wine people.”
As it turned out, his car industry background was incredibly helpful.
“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, Petaluma and Col D’Orcia. All through automotive contacts.”
On top of that, his knowledge of auto parts distribution allowed him to apply similar principles to wine and make ASC known for efficiency and quality.
“We lost money on some of these deliveries but it built our reputation for service,” he would write.
In those early wine days, the main competitors were Montrose and Summergate, but ASC ultimately ran ahead of them and everyone else, eventually selling to Suntory in 2009. But not without overcoming lots of obstacles.
In what was symbolic of the topsy-turvy nature of China’s business scene, St Pierre Jr. was detained nearly one month in a high-profile Customs investigation in 2008. St Pierre Sr. called it “the toughest time in my life.”
Then, shortly after his release, ASC hosted critic Robert Parker on his first trip to continental China, which included a dinner on the Great Wall. Talk about downs and ups.
St Pierre faced many obstacles in building ASC. From what he calls the “hijacking” of his first wine stock by a partner to a devastating warehouse fire to facing massive cash flow challenges early on. ASC got much-needed funding from Gernot Langes-Swarovski, of Swarovski crystal fame, after St Pierre Sr. met him by chance during a smoke break in Beijing–Swarovski bought 49 percent of the company just four months later.
(Then again, before getting into wine, the St Pierres were importing ammo to the US and had 74 million bullets confiscated by US officials in a huge raid that looked like it would mean serious jail time. But in what was an embarrassment for the government, it turned out the ammo was legally imported and had to be returned to the St Pierres. Frankly, if you can handle that, a warehouse fire must be child’s play.)
St Pierre covered these and many other stories in his memoir, Jeeps, Pretty Ladies & Wine, featuring no holds barred business fights, skirt-chasing and calling people out or praising them highly. No one familiar with St Pierre would be surprised by the book’s title or tone. The 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.”
(It serves as a good bookend to Beijing Jeep by Jim Mann, a book in which St Pierre played a central role and that contains business lessons still relevant today.)
The memoir covers both the good and the bad, victories and defeats, business and personal affairs. And includes an intense scene with a golfing foursome, complete with a three-star general, St. Pierre accused of cheating during a Beijing tournament.
The book ultimately reveals St Pierre as a doer, with a sharp learning curve, who solves problems with gusto and is willing to take calculated risks.
At one point, he and St Pierre Jr. created their own label, Chateau Saint Pierre, in an attempt to drum up sales at a time when wine was still a rarity for most consumers.
“Don Jr and I had to come up with a name, label design, capsule design, cork type and quality, bottle design and a few other details to make a brand,” he wrote. “Of course, we knew shit about any of those things, but we dove in.”
At one point, Chateau Saint Pierre was selling more than 200,000 12-bottle cases per year.
A memorial was held for Don St Pierre Sr. in Beijing last night, with current ASC employees like Dorian Tang — who just marked her 21st year with the company — and former ones like Louie Li giving heartfelt remarks alongside friends such as vintner Jean-Charles Boisset, former Capital Club GM Bertrand Petton and former Beijing Jeep associate Rick, who St Pierre taught to golf in the 1980s — the pair played their final round together in January in Phuket and, even at age 81, St Pierre was still driving and putting well.
Carrie Xuan, ASC’s former vice president and part of the team from the beginning, sent a video message from France, talking about her memories of St Pierre Sr. and playing clips from Bob Seger’s ‘Like a Rock’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ as symbolizing his spirit.
Don St Pierre Jr. also spoke at length during the memorial, describing his father as his “best friend”, who taught him “resilience and perseverance.” He told the packed room how his father had grown up poor — the family had no electricity and used an outhouse — but became a successful businessman. And that the two had very different styles — the operation headed by his father in Beijing and the one headed by him in Shanghai were like two different companies — but they made it work.
“We ended up doing something that most foreigners struggle to do in China,” he said. “We made some money and we took it out.”
He also said he was proud of the team he built with his father: “There are not a lot of people in this room who are still with ASC but we are all still family.”
The guests then spent the night catching up and sharing memories of Don St Pierre Sr.
As for my own memories, I first talked to St Pierre at length when I joined an ASC Napa dinner featuring Phelps and Shafer wines nearly 20 years ago. He said to stick around afterward and, when everyone left, said I “didn’t know shit” about wine and proceeded to give me insights while we smoked Marlboro Reds and shared a bottle of Bollinger Champagne in the former Aria restaurant in the China World Hotel.
I also attended that Robert Parker dinner on the Great Wall in 2008. This was shortly after the Customs case ended, to everyone’s great relief, and St Pierre was enjoying wine and smoking cigarettes while a harpist played ‘My Way.’ (In the photo below, you can see the harpist at right.)
Beyond that, I occasionally met or spoke with St Pierre. One time, I introduced him to a friend Ed, another veteran car industry executive, and we drank St Pierre’s preferred tipple — Johnnie Walker Blue — while they told me to get my act together. Another time, I was summoned to the Capital Club, once the see-and-be-seen venue for Beijing’s businesspeople, to talk about possibly editing St Pierre’s memoirs — the club had a “no jeans” rule and I was given a sarong to wrap around my legs, which amused him. And I would occasionally run into him at his favorite haunts, like the bar at The Capital Club or TRIO restaurant or Capone’s.
In 2018, I got an email out of the blue from Don that he had finally published his memoirs.
“I’m living well on Phuket and golfing 2-3 times a week, and drinking too much wine once a week,” he added. Don St Pierre Sr spent those final years of his life how he had always tried to live: “My Way.”
Note: There were many responses to this post, often referring to St Pierre as a “legend.” Here are ten:
- RIP Uncle Don. He was truly a legend.
- Don was a true legend and a visionary in China. We had the blessing of introducing his first winery from Chile and visiting several of his brunches in China, years before the rest of the industry. RIP Don
- Thanks so much for sharing, Jim! Don was a friend, neighbor, mentor, major China auto pioneer & loveable curmudgeon. Rest in Peace, Don Sr.!
- I was leaving [the Beijing bar] Frank’s one night after 12 and just about to pull out into traffic when my Cherokee was stopped by a guy flanked by a “bevy of broads.” I wound down my window — “sup?” — and was requested / required to drive Don and flock to his next destination. I had neither met nor heard of him before but when he told me I was driving his Jeep, I thought “fair enough”, and off we went. I can’t remember what time I got home. The first of many interesting and fun times with Senior.
- Don Senior was a legend and a great human being… always telling it the way it is. And had a great sense of humour to turn things into a laugh. I will certainly miss him.
- I drove his wines and I drank his Jeep. Or it could have been the other way around. Hard to recall, it’s all a bit fuzzy.
- A moment of silence will not be held as Don never seemed to fancy the stuff! Rather a glass will be raised for a man who made untold and uncountable contributions to Beijing and our community that called it home. To Don!
- RIP Don what a legend. Danny Kane
- Don Sr, you were a fabulous mentor and great boss. Thanks for believing in me.
- Don was a legend, a great friend and a mentor to many of us. Rest in peace, old mate. You were truly loved by many.
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