Don St Pierre Sr. (pic: Getty Image)

Don St Pierre Sr. (pic: Getty Image)

A towering figure in China’s wine industry, Don St Pierre Sr. leaves behind a lasting legacy as he played a pivotal role in introducing fine wines to China and broadening Chinese palates.

Don St Pierre Sr., the legendary founder of China’s leading wine importing company ASC Fine Wines, has passed away at the age 82 after a long battle with cancer.

A towering figure in China’s wine industry, he leaves behind a lasting legacy as he played a pivotal role in introducing fine wines to China and broadening Chinese palates.

The wine industry maverick died on April 21 and a memorial was held in Beijing this month by his son Don. St Pierre Jr.

Born on July 28, 1941 in Canada, Don St Pierre Sr. grew up in a “dirt poor” household with no electricity, no running water or heat. An enterprising individual and a straight shooter, Don St Pierre Sr., would leave his life in the small town for China in 1985 to head Beijing Jeep, the first foreign joint venture in China’s auto industry, and later founded ASC Fine Wines in 1996 with his son on the cusp of a great grape awakening.

ASC Fine Wines' launch party in 1996 (pic: ASC Fine Wines)
ASC Fine Wines’ launch party in 1996 (pic: ASC Fine Wines)

After his time with Beijing Jeep and ASIMCO Technologies, setting up a business with his son to sell wine to a country in 1990s was seemingly a straightforward idea. As Don Sr. wrote in his memoir Jeeps, Pretty Ladies and Wine, the thinking goes: with a population of 1.2 billion at the time,“all of these folks had to drink and eat something.”

The go-to drink was of course Moutai, where gulping copious amounts of the white liquor was mandatory at banquets and business meetings. Don Sr. figured something more palatable would eventually emerge to replace what he described in his words “the rot- gut drink that doubled as rocket fuel”.

Wine as it happens was promoted by then Premier Li Peng as a healthy alternative to grain-based Baijiu when speaking to cadres and comrades at National People’s Congress in 1996. Seeing wine as a consumer product that’s about to take off, the same year, Don Sr. and his son Don Jr. launched ASC Fine Wines. As luck goes, they were able to quickly secure distributions for four prestigious wine brands – Napa’s Beringer, Champagne Bollinger, Australia’s Petaluma and Italy’s Col d’Orcia – through Don Sr.’s automotive connections.

By the time when Japanese drinks giant Suntory bought a majority stake in ASC Fine Wines in 2010, the company had grown to employ over 1,000 people and represents more than 100 wineries from all over the world.

With all victories, ASC in its early days faced numerous challenges from cashflow problems, seized warehouse to a menacing warehouse fire that devoured US$3 million worth of wines, logistics nightmares to Don Jr.’s detention by Chinese customs authorities in Shanghai over allegedly under declared wines.

Don St Pierre Sr.’s relentless pursuit of excellence and entrepreneurial spirit propelled ASC Fine Wines to the forefront of China’s wine industry. It was rightfully lauded by Robert Parker as “the greatest wine distributor in China” after the wine critic attended a high-octane dinner held on China’s Great Wall in 2008.

Speaking of Don Sr.’s passing, Makoto Nagae, CEO of ASC Fine Wines, commended St Pierre Sr.’s enduring impact on the company and the wider wine industry. “Although I didn’t have the privilege of meeting Don Sr. personally, I have heard a lot about him from our team members who had the honor of working with him,” Nagae told Vino Joy News. “Don Sr. was a legendary person who founded ASC, making enormous impacts not only on the company but also on the wine industry as a whole in China and internationally. His charismatic and visionary leadership, unwavering dedication, as well as immense passion for ASC and ASC people, have and will continue to inspire all of us in ASC. We will always remember him with the utmost respect and admiration as the founder of ASC.”

In an email reply to Vino Joy News, reflecting on his father’s legacy,Don St Pierre Jr. shared: “My father lived his life full speed, and enjoyed it without much regret, or at least as someone famous once sang, too few to mention. He was a man who was in the arena “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls w ho neither know victory nor defeat.

“I am proud to have called him my best friend, and besides that he was a great father – this combination was unusual, and I feel very fortunate to have been with him for so much of his life’s journey.

“When I asked my dad how he wanted to be remembered, this is what he said – ‘A good father, a pretty good athlete, and a fighter who never gave up when the heat was on’.”   

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