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Ningxia
Spreading the Word
How a Canadian wine buff strives to tell Ningxia's story to the world
By Jacques Fourrier | No. 8 FEBRUARY 23, 2017
Staff members of Kanaan Winery in Yinchuan, northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, pose for a photo (COURTESY OF KANAAN)

Jim Boyce, founder of Grapewallofchina.com, a website about Chinese wine, has been reporting on China's emerging wine market for almost a decade. The 48-year-old consultant has traveled extensively in the country's wine regions, organizing winetasting events, wine study and discovery trips, and charity events. He is now considered an authority not only on Chinese wine, but also on all things alcoholic in China, be it baijiu or beer.

A seasoned public relations man, Boyce is also a zhongguotong—an old China hand—so he understands all the arcane details of doing business and the subtlety of communication in China.

A turning point

The year 2009 is still etched in Boyce's memory. It was the first time wines from the Silver Heights Vineyard, located in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, featured in a tasting event in Beijing.

After Boyce started Grapewallofchina.com, one of the nation's leading wine distributors, Torres China, got in touch. "They wanted to know if we would be interested in trying their wine." Seizing the opportunity, he organized a small-scale winetasting event at Palette Vino, a popular wine bar in Beijing, in June 2009. "I had tried tons of wines," Boyce said, "but this time I thought, wow! This is a watershed wine."

The connoisseur became increasingly interested in Silver Heights wine, which comes from a region almost unheard of at the time. "There was something unique about this wine," he said, as he remembered his first impressions. It was the beginning of a true passion for the Helan Mountains in Ningxia and the region's wineries, as Boyce discovered real gems and developed lasting friendships with some of the winery owners.

Boyce started finding ways to increase the wine-producing region's profile, even investing his own time and money to help spread the word. What he did for the Kanaan winery in early 2015 exemplifies his dedication.

With Kanaan wines scoring highly in winetasting events, Boyce featured them on Grapewallofchina.com, and readers subsequently inquired where the wines could be purchased. But the winery had no distributor, so Boyce took on the role himself, ordering around 100 bottles and having them delivered to a wine shop in Beijing.

Over a year after the winery had been granted the ultimate accolade by British wine critic Jancis Robinson at a tasting event, Kanaan finally inked a deal in July 2015 with Summergate, another of China's top wine distributors, gaining recognition of sorts for another of Boyce's pet wineries.

Passionate about wine and with a nose for public relation opportunities, Boyce has been laying the groundwork for such developments for years.

His first publicity stunt left a lasting impact. In the wine world, everyone has heard of the controversy over the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976—known as the Judgment of Paris—which saw a selection of wines from Bordeaux and California going head to head and the new world entrant emerging victorious.

On December 14, 2011, Boyce co-organized the Ningxia vs. Bordeaux Challenge in Beijing. The event featured 10 similarly priced wines blind-tasted by 10 judges from China and France. Journalists from international media such as The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press were invited.

Jim Boyce, founder of Grapewallofchina.com, sips wine (COURTESY OF JIM BOYCE)

Guerrilla marketing

First place went to Grace Vineyard, a Shanxi-based winemaker with a 67-hectare estate in Ganchengzi County, in the Qingtongxia terroir in Ningxia. And, Silver Heights and Helan Qingxue, both in the Yinchuan terroir, ranked second and third. The first Bordeaux in the rankings, a Barons de Rothschild Saga 2009, took the number five spot.

The news came as a bombshell, and the event made headlines worldwide, ruffling some feathers and hurting France's national pride. "The whole event cost no more than 5,000 yuan ($700), and do you know how much media coverage we got? That's what I like to do. I guess it's called guerilla marketing," Boyce said calmly.

Keen observers, however, would have noticed the rising tide, with this result coming as no surprise. Boyce had already organized winetasting events with Chinese and international judges in which Chinese wines fared particularly well. Just a few days before the Judgment of Beijing, Boyce convened a panel of experts for the North by Northwest China Wine Challenge in Beijing, and the same Chinese wineries came out on top overall.

With the Helan Mountain wine-producing region gathering momentum, the local authorities in Ningxia began to take heed and asked Boyce to move up a gear.

"They wanted to do the same Ningxia vs. Bordeaux Challenge in Nanjing. I told them, 'Even if you win, the media don't care the second time; this story is dead. It's already been reported," the media-savvy Canadian carefully explained. "[But] they insisted, and this time, Bordeaux won."

Then in July 2012, during his visit to some of the best wineries in Ningxia, local officials came up with the idea of bringing in foreign winemakers. Boyce agreed almost off the cuff to help Ningxia attract foreign talent.

Within a matter of days, the local wine industry federation, with Boyce's help, launched the First Ningxia Winemakers Challenge (NWC). The contest involved seven winemakers from around the world—Chile, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France, Spain and the United States—trying their hand at making wine in Ningxia over a two-year period.

Boyce also invited Robinson, whom he had met on several previous occasions, and much to his surprise, given the extremely short notice, Robinson flew in to Ningxia for the challenge's kick-off in early September 2012. Two weeks later, in her Financial Times column, Robinson featured Helan Qingxue's Jiabeilan Grand Reserve 2009, which had won a trophy at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards, Silver Heights' Emma's Reserve 2009, and Changyu's Cabernet Gernischt 2011.

Two years on, in September 2014, a panel of experts convened in Beijing to judge the results and dispense cash prizes totaling 190,000 yuan (around $30,000 at the time). Why did the judging not take place in Ningxia? "The media wouldn't travel to Ningxia to cover the story," explained Boyce. "So I organized the event in Beijing and invited the BBC, The Wall Street Journal and China Central Television." David Tyney, a young winemaker from Australia who had paired with Chateau Yuhuang for the challenge, won first prize in both the white and red wine categories.

The Ningxia challenge

"The NWC is not a wine challenge. It is a communication challenge." Boyce told the contestants that the main issue wouldn't be winemaking, but getting along with the wineries and the officials and dealing with day-to-day, mundane matters.

The NWC's second edition got underway in 2015, on a much larger scale, with 48 winemakers and total prize money of 840,000 yuan ($135,000). "I think Ningxia was very surprised at the quality of winemakers we attracted. We have people on master of wine programs, people with 25 years' experience, people who've won awards. Winemakers love to do harvests in different countries, and Ningxia is a pioneer," Boyce said. "It's an experience; you have very few chances to be on the leading edge of some developing wine region like Ningxia. And we're in the most populous country in the world in the fastest-growing economy of the millennium. It's attractive."

"The number of wineries making what I call commercially acceptable wine, that is, not faulty, has gone way up," Boyce said. "These wines pass the quality threshold." Alongside the wineries becoming better at making wine, the quality of the grapes has improved. "They're learning to pick later [and] better vineyard practices. This is really where you see the improvement, and the potential is still there."

A major problem affecting the vines, though, is the local climate. "You have to bury the vines every year," he explained. "And that's very hard on the vines." The whole process can be stressful, and the vine can get infected and die. "It's not a natural thing."

Boyce's Grapewallofchina.com has long been a mine of information for professionals and amateurs alike who are curious about the Chinese wine market and has helped bring people together. "It's created a focal point," he said.

Boyce is still big on Ningxia. He said, "Here's a place where all these guys are pretty close together. They get together in Yinchuan and open a few bottles; they go to Hong Kong together. You can really feel a kind of affinity, and that's great. That's one of the reasons why I like to be part of that."

The author is an editorial consultant for the Multimedia Section of Beijing Review

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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