Q&A! Judy Chan on 25 years at Grace Vineyard
Grape Wall of China
Grace Vineyard is 25 years old! That’s quite a long time just to survive in China’s wine business. And an almost impossibly long one while also producing a consistently good and intriguing portfolio.
Anyway, five years ago, I asked CEO Judy Chan 20 questions for 20 years. Now we are updating it with a Q&8 about everything from Chan’s best three decisions this past quarter-century to the future of Grace Sangiovese (and gin!) to today’s wine consumers to her top five all-time Grace wines. Check it out below.
(Note: Chan took over Grace from her father in 2001 while in her early twenties and has been a tireless champion of the winery since. Fun fact: she was also a founding contributor to Grape Wall of China way back in 2007!)
Q1 Five years ago, you said China’s wine consumers are “evolving at light speed.” Where are they now compared to 2017?
Judy: I find it even more difficult to capture the attention of consumers as they now not only drink wine, but also spirits, cocktails, sake and so on. If you study the figures, it looks like wine as a category continues to lose ground to other alcoholic beverages. It’s an alarming sign.
Q2 A big difference since the 20th anniversary is that Grace is now publicly listed. What are the biggest differences in leading Grace now versus then?
Judy: Back then we were a product-driven winery, that is, we spent a large portion of our time and resources on developing products. Now, we try to be an all-round balanced winery, with better discipline and corporate governance. I believe that will ensure we can go a long way.
Q3 I tasted Grace’s experimental Sangiovese and my immediate reaction was, “Start producing this right away!” But the wine industry doesn’t work like that. What’s the process for getting that wine on store shelves?
Judy: It’s an awfully long process. We were only allowed to import a small quantity of cuttings as an experiment. The import alone took a year.
Then, we needed to grow it in our nursery for another year before planting one row in the vineyards. (For experimental grapes, we only plant one row.)
Our first harvest would be four years later. Then, we need to at least have three vintages before deciding whether to give it a green light and add it to our portfolio.
And if we do it, we need to repeat the planting and wait another four years before the first harvest and so on. This process easily takes 12 to 15 years.
Q4 Grace released its first Ningxia wine last year, a quite bold Shiraz. What inspired you to pursue Shiraz and what else is in the Ningxia pipeline?
Judy: The viticulture team and winemaking team continue to plant new varieties. Syrah — we changed it from Shiraz to Syrah as it’s more suited — was one that stood out in the last experimental round. What else in the pipeline? You will see, but I guarantee there are many more to come.
Q5 Some of my favorite stories from your early years involve the team, such as when people would “borrow” Grace’s tractor to use at other farms without telling you. How much has the staff dynamic changed over the past 25 years?
Judy: Since then, things have improved a lot. We have worked with our partners, including growers, for many years, and have reach a mutual understanding. We are better at explaining our intentions and purposes. They are more receptive as we are no longer “people from outside of their village.”
Q6 What is happening with the gin project!? And what imported and local gins have impressed you?
Judy: We are going to launch our gins this year — I’m very excited. It’s going to be under the Grace brand but we will come up with a fun name, like we did for wine with Deep Blue.
I love Garden Shed Gin from Scotland and Two Moons from Hong Kong.
Q7 What three things did you do at Grace Vineyard over the past 25 years where you later said, “That was definitely the right decision”?
Judy: One, join Grace Vineyard. Two, have fun and not take myself too seriously in my role. Three, I didn’t sell Grace Vineyard when there was an offer before we were profitable.
Q8 Let’s say you had to pick your five favorite Grace wines from the past 25 years for a wine dinner. What would be your five picks?
Judy: Angelina’s Reserve Sparkling, Tasya’s Aglianico and Chardonnay, Chairman’s Reserve and Deep Blue.
[Can I add a sixth? The Tasya’s Cabernet Franc 2003, one of the first pours to really stoke my interest in Chinese wine!]
Check out 2017’s ’20 Years, 20 Questions’ with Chan here.