Judy Leissner Chan Fong was still in college in the US when she found out her father had started a winery. 'I was astonished,' she says. It was an even bigger shock when dad, entrepreneur Chan Chun-keung, put her in charge of launching the first vintage from their Grace Vineyard in 2002. Leissner was 24 at the time and had barely settled into her first job at an investment bank. 'I didn't drink then and didn't know a thing about grape varietals or winemaking,' she admits. Six years on, Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province has acquired an enviable reputation for producing fine tipples in a region better known for coal than chardonnays. But getting there was no cake walk. Hong Kong-based Chan, who has extensive interests in department stores, water treatment and infrastructure projects on the mainland, became interested in wine during his business trips to France. He and a French friend dreamed about eventually retiring to a winery, and started to look around for a suitable property. After an initial search in France, they turned their sights to China. 'Everyone was saying how there was only a mass market there and the quality wasn't good. But my father is the kind of person who likes to do what others consider impossible,' says Leissner. The family brought in oenologist Denis Boubals and spent two years scouring the mainland before plumping for a plot 40km south of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, in 1997. Situated in the middle reaches of the Yellow River, it has deep, sandy soil and the mild, continental climate best suited for grape growing. They imported vines and equipment from France, hired a French winemaker and began looking forward to the first vintage. The launch in 2002, however, was a disaster. Of the 500,000 bottles produced, they sold just 10,000 and gave away another 10,000. 'I was lost and dejected,' says Leissner. 'We hadn't paid enough attention to packaging, believing it was enough for the wine to be good.' The French style of Grace's wines didn't go down well with mainlanders used to sweeter wines with less tannin. And unlike in the west, where boutique wineries tend to be associated with quality, Chinese customers saw Grace's small, family-run operation as a sign of lower standards. The winery's location in Shanxi, largely known for its coal mines and pollution, also made it a tough sell. It was a particularly hard time for Leissner: she had just had a baby, her banker husband had been transferred to Singapore, and she was dealing with staff who were much older than her. 'Everything combined to make it overwhelming,' she says. That her father left the winery entirely in her hands only added to the pressure. 'I didn't get to work my way up,' she says. 'He just dumped the job on me and told me to get it done. It was frustrating not being able to reach him, and when I did, he would tell me to make the decisions myself.' Leissner had to learn about wines and winemaking on the run, reading up as much as she could, asking questions and tasting as many wines as possible. But along the way she also met people who guided her, she says. Besides its own vines, Grace Vineyard is contracted with 450 farm units from five villages to supply grapes for their wines. 'We provide farmers with the vines and initial capital and also guarantee them an income, so our presence is welcomed by the local government,' Leissner says. 'Their income has increased four times since we set up.' However, she found it took time and patience to convey the finer points of viticulture to farmers used to growing apples, dates and corn. 'It helps that they are experienced growers and care about the land, but it's hard to convince them that irrigation is bad [because it dilutes the flavour of the grapes] or that they should do green pruning [to remove some of the immature grapes to allow better ripening].' Persistence and attention to quality have paid off. The Peninsula Hong Kong began including Grace's vintages on its wine lists, and other five-star establishments followed. Oliver Schnatz, the Peninsula's director of food and beverage, says the hotel added Grace wines to its list in 2006 after extensive tastings. 'The quality of the wines from Grace Vineyard is very good,' Schnatz says. 'Our philosophy is that the wine lists at our restaurants and bars should include wines from all the world's biggest wine-producing regions. While China may not be a major world player at the moment, we believe it has huge potential.' A favourite among guests at the Peninsula is Grace's Private Blend Barrel 401. 'People generally don't have confidence in Chinese wine, but these hotels were willing to taste our wine and believed in us,' Leissner says. 'Our 2004 vintage is drinking well now and 2006 - the year of the great frost - will do even better.' Grace's wines have won favourable reviews from critics such as Jancis Robinson, recognition at international wine fairs, and now are being added to collectors' cellars. (During a trip to the mainland in March, Robinson visited Grace where she found the wines to be 'encouragingly authentic', naming its Chairman's Reserve 2005 as one of the top five wines she has tasted in China this year.). The winery, which began turning a profit two years ago, has earned a loyal following, especially for its Chairman's Reserve. 'The quality of that label has surprised many wine industry friends abroad,' Leissner says. 'They like to take it back for blind tastings because people rarely guess that it's made in China.' On the mainland, Grace's wines are sold through its shops in Shanghai and Guangzhou. Leissner occasionally shows up at the counters. 'It's always very exciting to be able to sell a crate,' she says. These days, the winery's problems have less to do with selling its output and more with not being able to meet demand. 'Since last year, we've been running out of wine,' she says. 'While this is a better problem to have, we don't want to be delisted from hotels because we can't supply them with enough wine, and we also want to ensure quality doesn't fall.' To expand production, Grace has established two new vineyards, in Shaanxi and Ningxia provinces. 'Our ultimate goal is to discover what grows best where, so it's important to step out of Shanxi,' says Leissner. Australian winemaker Ken Murchison now oversees the production at Grace, but it will retain its Old World style. Leissner, who visits the Shanxi winery at least once a month, also has her say on the big decisions, such as which blend will suit the prestigious Chairman's Reserve label. Her father, she says, mainly enjoys drinking the wines. With her daughters now aged three and five, Leissner's long working hours have become an issue for negotiation. 'When they were younger, it didn't really register how many days I was away,' she says. 'Now they hold me to my promises. But it's important for me to travel because there are markets in China I know nothing about.' Leissner makes it a point for them to join the annual grape harvests, when she and her daughters help with the picking. 'For my girls, knowing the names of the grape varieties is an obvious thing. I hope they will take over and I'm trying to cultivate their interest.' Despite her abrupt launch into the wine business, Leissner says she wouldn't trade her job now. 'First, I really like wine and I think the industry suits my personality. The vineyard is a wonderful place to be - it's not hard to like it.' Most of all, she enjoys promoting the wines. 'Through wine, I've met a lot of interesting people,' she says. 'Wine is an interesting product because it acts as a bridge for Chinese people, who tend be conservative and find it hard to open up and chat with strangers. And wine always goes with good food.' For now, Leissner's ambitions are not to put her wines on international connoisseurs' lists, but lie closer to home. 'In 10 years, I hope we will have discovered varietals that do really well in our soil and that can represent Grace as our signature vines,' she says. And while the mainland has traditionally exported a lot of its best produce, 'we want to be the good stuff that stays'.