When she was just 24, Judy Leissner took over her family business, Grace Vineyard, in a village in Shanxi Province. She tells Ruby Gao the story of China’s first family-owned winery.
Judy Leissner, president of Grace Vineyard, compares herself to a glass of Champagne, vibrant with good acidity while young and showing distinctive charm with age.
“More importantly, its bubbling character echoes my talkative and sociable personality, befitting the wine industry. A big role of a vineyard owner is telling the story of her wine, which gives it value beyond the bottle,” 36-year-old Leissner tells Shanghai Daily in an interview at her wine shop in the city.
Grace Vineyard is the first family-owned vineyard in China and is known for high-quality, affordable “boutique” wine.
A wall in Leissner’s Shanghai wine shop is covered with her family photos, documenting the family firm and featuring her father, the founder, her husband, two daughters and herself.
“Here I can receive the real feedback from customers, unlike the more polished feedback from restaurants and hotels that serve my wine,” says the US-educated vintner, who is based in Hong Kong.
Grace Vineyard (Yi Yuan, meaning Elegant and Beautiful Vineyard) was established by Leissner’s father, Chinese-Indonesian Chan Chun Keung, 16 years ago in Shanxi Province. Leissner took over her father’s business when she was only 24 years old.
The vineyard was recognized internationally in 2008 when its 2005 Chairman’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon received the Decanter World Wine Award.
Today there are more quality Chinese wineries such as Silver Heights and Jade Valley, but Grace is generally considered the first strong statement that made-in-China wine can mean quality. Grace is one of the few labels providing Chinese access to affordable fine wine.
Decanter said: “Judy Leissner ... (is) making unarguably the top wines in China and likely to spearhead any Chinese move to fine wine.”
Last year, Leissner became the first recipient of the Asian Wine Personality award from the Institute of Master of Wine. She was honored for promoting wine in Asia through winemaking, marketing and sales.
“Although I visit the vineyard in Shanxi once a month, I spend most of my time flying around the world to tell the story of Grace Vineyard,” says Leissner.
It’s a story of inheritance.
Grace Vineyard covers 200 hectares in Taigu Village in the middle of coal-rich Shanxi. It has sandy soil and a continental climate. Five main grape varieties, three red and two white, are planted — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, white Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.
Leissner’s father’s choice of Shanxi for a vineyard was questioned by many wine experts because the province is highly polluted and contains many coal mines and factories.
Chan, the retired founder, ran a coal mining business in Shanxi for many years. He recently said, “I felt it was my duty to make up for the damage that had been done to the environment.”
In explaining his choice of location, he emphasized that it is in the central basin, far from the northern and southern areas where the mining industries are concentrated.
There’s another family history reason behind the location, Leissner says.
“My family, from my grandfather to father, led a wandering life filled with turbulence, roving from nan yang (Southeast Asia 南洋) to China’s mainland and then to Hong Kong when the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76) happened. We have a strong intention to sink our roots for a stable life and legacy that can be passed on, Wine fits,” she says.
Leissner attributes the success of Grace Vineyard to her faithfully following her family’s core value: a jiefang (街坊) business. Jiefang literally means neighbor and refers to a small, long-time business that targets nearby residents and relies on word-of-mouth marketing.
“Sellers cannot be too ambitious and profit-driven or it’s impossible for their products to be worth the price. I can expand the production and raise the price but am not willing to,” says the young entrepreneur. “For me, customers becoming friends is more important than making money. That may sound like a fairy tale that many people don’t believe but I do think that way.”
According to Leissner, most customers see wine as one way of accessing a Westernized, somewhat romantic, lifestyle. She says customers would be angry if they discovered they were stupidly paying for an overpriced bottle.
That approach led to her two major business decisions, which she considers her best and most far-reaching in the past 11 years.
In 2004, after launching the first and second vintages, Leissner decided to remove half the vines and slash production because they were losing money.
The first vintage was a disaster: A million bottles were produced but only 20,000 were sold. Part of the reason was Shanxi’s reputation for pollution. Also, the concept of a “boutique” business does not convey the all-important idea of cachet and status to many Chinese.
“It was impossible to keep the brand value and quality distribution under this kind of inventory pressure,” Leissner says. “Although the sales increased two years later and all the vines were replanted, I do not regret having made that choice.”
In 2007, heavy rainfall seriously damages the quality of the grape. She determined not to make a reserve wine, only premium and table wine.
Their wine was out of stock in 2008. Any of the 2007 vintage, if labeled reserve, would have been sold, but she refused.
“If I could turn back, I wouldn’t make any wine that year!” she says.
Heritage of innovation
“In Europe, people can watch over their family business even as they cling to old, traditional ways. But in fast-paced China, you cannot survive without innovation; heritage and ‘legacy’ are not enough,” Leissner says.
As an entrepreneur, she’s not conservative and top-down but innovative and open-minded.
“My winemaker from Malaysia has a wine aesthetic totally different from mine. He loves Napa style, rich and bodied, while I prefer the Old World, Burgundy style, elegant. I allow him to make a small portion that he likes but always remind him not to kidnap the whole winery,” says the vineyard owner.
Leissner is dedicated to experimenting — from grape varieties and terroir to new ways of dealing with farmers and team building. Leissner is now growing a small area of Riesling, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Marselan and Aglianico.
In 2011, she established her second vineyard in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, finding that the Cabernet from grapes grown there has a fruitier taste and deeper color than the wine from Shanxi. A winery there is under construction; the main winery is in Shanxi.
“It’s still too early to tell which areas and grapes are best for Chinese winemaking. Making wine is not as romantic as we imagine but scientifically based on plenty of rigorous experiments,” she says.
Leissner once invited local grape farmers to a wine tasting. “But that proved to be the worst decision. They disliked tannic and balanced wine,” she explains, adding that they prefer sweeter wine.
She’s now thinking of giving up cooperation with local farmers and growing vines with her own trained employees.
“Even if we guarantee their income and a bonus if the sugar and acidity are particularly high, they are not dedicated but money-driven. Their focus on vines is not persistent but depends on the market performance,” according to the vintner. Sometimes it makes more economic sense to them to grow other crops.
Leissner is also rebuilding her own professional team, because she faces the challenge of customers more knowledgeable than staff.
Leissner was put in charge of the vineyard when she was only 24, and had settled into her first job as an HR analyst at Goldman Sachs. She was a fresh graduate from the University of Michigan, majoring in psychology and women’s studies.
She didn’t know that her father owned a vineyard. She didn’t drink at all back then and knew nothing bout wine, management or the Chinese market.
“I asked to work from the bottom but he refused. ‘I am training you to be an entrepreneur, not a manager,’ he told me,” Leissner recalls.
Only now has she come to appreciate her father’s efforts in schooling her in business. An entrepreneur dares to lose, hence, will take risk, while a manager only makes the decision he or she feels confident with, Leissner observes.
Being young, female and coming from Hong Kong — those characteristics have been a double-edged sword in her career.
At the beginning, much older and more experienced staff were her subordinates, and reluctantly so, only at her father’s behest. Being young can also mean bold, so she had courage to move forward, she says.
A female vineyard owner is rare, making Leissner and her vineyard more likely to be remembered.
Coming from hectic Hong Kong where a can-do attitude prevails, she experienced a collision of culture and values in slow-moving and remote village in north China.
Her staff didn’t speak English, while her Mandarin was poor.
Life at Goldman Sachs was filled with deadlines and staff commonly worked until midnight, but people in Taigu are accustomed to taking a two-hour afternoon nap and rambling at meetings before getting to the point.
Good relations with local government authorities are essential for doing business in China and Grace Vineyard benefits from government support. But dealing with bureaucracy can be difficult.
“You can only adapt yourself to the world and cannot adapt the world to yourself,” Leissner observes.
She has grown fond of what she’s doing. It helps to have a selective memory that retains the positive, which makes her confident and upbeat.
“Both my personality and team keep me motivated,” she says.
Her winemaker sometimes calls her unexpectedly at midnight, telling her “today’s wine is amazing.”
She is married to an Austrian businessman, and they have two daughters, ages eight and 10.
“I walk barefoot with my daughters in the vineyard and teach them to appreciate wine, telling them this is a peach note and this is a honey aroma,” she says.
A new story of inheritance is just getting started.
What others say
“We are proud and obliged to put Grace Vineyard on our wine lists to convince Chinese customers that China can produce wine as well as other countries and show foreign guests what China can do.
“I organized a wine tasting including most of the top Chinese wines such as Silver Heights and Jia Bei Lan and was pleasantly surprised by Judy’s wine. Her Chairman Reserve distinguishes itself through its elegant classicness. However, I forecast that the sparkling wines that she is making with traditional method, aging wine on lees for more than four years, will be more surprising.”
— Lu Yang, wine director at Shangri-La Group, also the most renowned Chinese sommelier
“Grace Vineyard respects French winemaking tradition. Wine tastes outstandingly good among domestic wines, especially its finesse and balance. Price performance is also a highlight. The vineyard sees wine as part of agriculture not a kind of industrial production, although production has increased recently. Those industrialized bottles are made to be standardized, satisfying demand for high production and low cost, which is contradictory to the nature of wine.”
— Phillip Gao, publisher and editor-in-chief at Le Vin Wine Magazine
“Five years ago I commented that Grace Vineyard is one of a few well-recognized wineries that are 100 percent made in China, from vine growing and winemaking to marketing. Its Deep Blue is a classical Old World wine made in the New World. I still believe this. Time tells its commitment to quality and consistency. I personally consider that it is so far the best winery in China.”
— Li Demei, lecturer in viticulture at the Beijing University of Agriculture and an award-winning Chinese winemaker