An Interview with Judy Leissner : CEO of Grace Vineyard, China (EXCLUSIVE)
Judy, thank you for talking to us here at 12×75.com
12×75: Judy, you decided to leave Goldman Sachs to join your father in growing Grace Vineyard at the age of 24. How different were the two working environments?
Those two are completely opposite. GS is a fast-pace, can-do, efficient place, while Grace Vineyard/Shanxi, at that time, was very isolated, under-developed and slow. I remember when I held my first internal meeting, I prepared the Agenda and planned to finish within an hour. Yet, my team wasn’t prepared for such a “quick & focused” meeting. Some were making their own tea, others were smoking. The whole atmosphere was rather sleepy.
12×75: You were given the reigns of a multi million dollar business at such a young age. Looking back now, do you honestly think you were ready to be in charge and how did the management team react to your appointment at the time?
The nice things about being young are that you are 1) naive and 2) think too highly of yourself. Back then, I didn’t know how difficult this battle was and thought I could definitely do it. I couldn’t foresee a lot of problems, so i just handled things in front of me, one thing at a time. The good thing about that was I wasn’t scared and always appeared to be confident.My management team was of course sceptical as the average age of the staff at that time was about mid-40. However, as a family business, I guess they were prepared for a family member to takeover from my dad. I was quite direct and acted tough. Some of them were hoping that I was just a transition and ultimately, one of my brothers would take over (traditional Chinese thinking that only sons will takeover the family business)..haha..unfortunately, it didn’t come true for them.
12×75: Grace Vineyard is often known as China’s first Bordeaux Wine. Is this a compliment or an insult?
Right now, it’s definitely a compliment. However, if 20 years later, people still say that, it’s not an insult, but an indication that we fail to achieve what we set out
to do – produce a high-quality wine that can represent the climate & soil of China
12×75: Since HK made alcohol ‘duty free’, what affect has that had on your business and how difficult (if at all) is it to compete against Bordeaux Wineries.
Our business in Hong Kong is rather small, most of our wines are sold in parts of mainland China. The overall impact is good. More and more wines are available in Hong Kong (to some extent to China via Hong Kong), and this enhance the wine knowledge. I don’t think we are competing against the Bordeauxwines as we are in a completely different category.
12×75: Grace Vineyard has evidently evolved a lot since its start, how would you say that mainland China has evolved its appreciation for domestic wines?
A lot! A lot! I remember 7 years ago, when we first opened our wine shop. Clients would walk in and ask for the most expensive wine. Now, they will discuss with us that they prefer Cabernet Sauvignon over Merlot, or which vintage is better. In the last two years, i also see the demand for imported wines has increased tremendously.
12×75: You didn’t drink wine before joining Grace Vineyard, how transformed would you say your palate is now?
I hated wine when i started. It was tannic and acidic. On top of that, i passed out after only one glass. Now, i really love it. I also went through this development – from very fruity wine, to very strong and tannic wine, then evolve to elegant and subtle wine. Often people ask me what wine i prefer, to be honest, i don’t have a preference. It’s about the mood. Some days, i want to drink a fruity and easy wine. Some days, I prefer something lighter…
12×75: You’ve spoken about social responsibility in the past, to you, what do these two words mean, and how are Grace Vineyard doing their bit for the locals?
I think as a Corporate and an individual, we are part of the society. There are certain responsibilities one has to fulfill as a member of the society. As Grace Vineyard, we are doing a few basic things:
– We guarantee our growers basic income – at the beginning, we got the nearby farmers to switch from growing other crops to grape. We provided the vines and know-how for them. In the last 14 years, we pay them a minimum income according to the land size. On top of that, we give them extra rewards/bonus if they follow our instruction closely and according to grape quality.
-Shanxiprovince has been relying on coal-related industry for many years and they want to introduce other industries which are environmentally-friendly and sustainable. Grace is a perfect example. We introduce a completely new industry to this province. We also introduce a new concept – it’s quality that matters, not quantity.
– We provide many jobs for people from the nearby villages
12×75: Cathay Pacific are now serving your wines on First and Business class. How did all this come about?
They only served our wines for a season as we couldn’t continue to supply them the quantity they needed.Cathayalways looks for new wines to introduce to their clients. They asked us to submit our wines for their wine-selection panel to taste. The panel liked the wines and decided to serve it after flying the wine around on air and tasted it again. Suddenly, this huge scandal of melamine milk scandal broke out (in 2008). The management was afraid. I explained to them that milk and wine were completely unrelated, and volunteered to send the wine toEuropefor extra tests. Finally, they served our wines on First and Business class.
12×75: Judy, you are admired by so many Chinese Wineries and collectors alike, tell us who you admire in the Wine World?
Jean-Michel Cazes of Lynch Bages and Miguel Torres of Torres
12×75: Given that you are taking over the domestic market, what are your plans for the international market?
Haha…no way. We are just a very small player in the domestic market and Grace Vineyard is only available in a few places in China(not the whole country). I’ve no plan to go international as i believe there is still plenty of room to grow in China.
12×75: Tell us something about yourself, that no one else knows?
No one else knows? It’s tough as i tend to share too much about myself to people that i just meet. Hmm…Many people think that i’m the goodie goodie daughter (at least from a traditional Chinese point of view) as i’m married with two kids and i’m able to achieve something at work. However, back in my high school days, I was the black sheep of the family. I did terribly in high school and sometimes my extended family was embarrassed by me and didn’t want to introduce me to their friends. I guess people do change, or deep inside, i’m still the black sheep in some way?
12×75: I’ve yet to try a bottle of the Deep Blue, how soon will you be sending us one? Will it be this week or next ?