*UPDATE: The story is updated on September 25 and 27 to reflect new information on Castle Li’s post provided by sources from COFCO. It’s understood that Li is still with COFCO and retains a managerial post despite being relieved of his current position as general manager of GreatWall.
Castle Li, one of the most important personalities in China’s drinks industry, has been relieved from his position as general manager of China’s second biggest domestic winery over “discipline violation”, just three months after he was replaced as head of COFCO’s imported wine and spirits business, the biggest wine importer in China by volume.
The news came as a shock to the Chinese wine trade, as Li was still attending wine events just as recent as early September for IWC China awards dinner, Vino-joy.com has learned.
Speculation about his fate started when Li did not show up at a scheduled appearance at a wine event in Penglai in eastern Shandong province yesterday on September 18.
On the night of the same day, Li was rumoured to have been sacked as General Manager of COFCO’s GreatWall Winery, the country’s second biggest winery after Changyu Pioneer Wine Company.
Several Chinese news media confirmed with COFCO today that Li was indeed relieved from his two high-ranking positions as General Manager at Great Wall and Deputy General Manager of COFCO’s alcoholic beverage department over “discipline violation”.
The term as described by foreign media news organisations is oftentimes a euphemism that could cover a raft of wrongdoings from violating official code of conducts to abuse of power for Chinese officials.
But according to a credible source from COFCO who talked to Vino-joy.com on the condition of anonymity because the person is not allowed to discuss the matter publicly with press, the relief is only limited to administrative punishment and did not involve bribery or corruption.
The alleged wrongdoings for discipline violation are related to exceeding travel and marketing budget, and violation of eight-point regulation for official conduct.
Although stripped of the two posts, Li is believed to have kept a managerial post within COFCO, the person reveals.
Earlier in July, Li was replaced as head of COFCO Wine & Wine, the importing arm of COFCO’s wine and spirits business and the country’s biggest wine importer by volume, after heading up the position for 5 years since its inception in 2014, as vino-joy.com exclusively reported.
A graduate from China’s top university Peking University, Li rose through ranks and was credited for turning COFCO Wine & Wine into the country’s biggest wine importer by volume amid anti-corruption drive that dampened luxury spending.
During his tenure, Li also partnered with wine critic James Suckling and popularized his large-scale tasting events in mainland China.
His work at COFCO Wine & Wine had not gone unnoticed, and in 2017 he was promoted to head GreatWall Winery, an embattled Chinese winery that had struggled with making profits for years.
In 2018, he trimmed as many as 40% low-end SKU brands from GreatWall and focused on re-branding. As a result, the winery’s wine sales within the first nine months of that year surpassed total revenue generated in 2017, according to the winery.