SA Life

Get CityMag in your inbox. Subscribe
August 28, 2014

Bottled diplomacy

As Australia solidifies its ties with Japan, relations with China have slipped slightly to the background. But over a bottle of SA wine, Adelaide is bypassing the Federal Government to create direct commercial, cultural and diplomatic links with the People’s Republic – our number one trade partner.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Josie Withers

CityMag has met few people who seem more quintessentially Australian than Chris Grigoriou. 

The wine businessman is straight talking in a blunt-but-friendly way, and uses the word “knackered” more than once during our interview. In some ways he seems like an unlikely ambassador for South Australia to China, but he’s been visiting the country about twice a year for the last decade-and-a-half and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to sell wine into the Chinese market. 

His newest business – a family venture called Barossa Trading and Bottling Company – was founded earlier this year, in part to capitalise on his experience in the Asia Pacific market. Already acting as grape grower, winemaker and bulk wine supplier into Europe (a continent that usually receives Australian wine unbottled in a 24,000L vat) through his other company Portia Valley Wines, Chris wanted to diversify his income streams and tap into the buyers in our region.

“There is a strong requirement by most Asian markets to have South Australia on the wine and it gives you a better leverage into the market…” – Chris Grigoriou

Portia Valley Wines is a raw-end business. It grows and sources grapes then turns them into wine that can be bought in bulk by clients from Australia or around the world. Barossa Bottling and Trading Company deals with the more finicky logistical and entrepreneurial side of the wine business – it lets clients store the wine they have bought or made on Barossa Trading’s premises, then it bottles that wine, labels it and ships it off to wherever it is supposed to go. 

More often that not, the place it is supposed to go is China. In 2013 – according to the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – the value of South Australia’s goods exportation to China was $2,795,270,000, of which  $123,167,000 was alcoholic beverages – largely wine. It was our fourth biggest export to the country behind iron ore, copper and copper ore. And it is an export market that Chris says has huge potential for growth.  

On the bottling line before heading to China

On the bottling line before heading to China

“You’ve got to remember that there’s 1.3 billion Chinese people,” he says. “Four years ago they were drinking about a quarter of a litre of wine per head, per year – while Australia is at 21 litres per head per year and somewhere like France is 145 litres per head per year of wine. 

“But China was never a wine drinking country, it has only been the last 20 years that they’ve started to drink it. 

“They’ve gone from a quarter of a litre to three quarters of a litre, so that’s a half litre increase. On the big scale – that’s a 650 million litre increase. Australia is 20 per cent of that – so it’s 130 million litres extra we can supply, which is equivalent to our so-called oversupply.”

Chris understands that for Barossa Trading to be an effective manager of the bottling and shipping of wine into markets like China, it must do more than bottle, store and ship wine. He’s aware that the company also has a pivotal role to play in creating and maintaining a strong brand for the South Australian wine industry.

Every conversation he has at an international trade expo or while on a business trip creates an impression, and the experience trade partners have when they come visit him forms a long-lasting memory.

Corks are still considered highly desirable in the Chinese market

Corks are still considered highly desirable in the Chinese market

That’s why his facility just out of Tanunda on Barossa Valley Way not only has a bottling line and 9 million litres worth of storage tanks, but also a boardroom and a cellar door. The cellar door – once renovated – will be open to the public and used as a spot for Chris to offer tastings of some key client wines to potential buyers. 

“They have to take in what the area has got in a short time and go off and sell that experience to their customers in their market,” says Chris.

“You travel through the Barossa, and for some of these people they live all their life in big cities and they’ve never seen a vine or some scrub or some country – so you’re trying to sell them that experience. They come here and they see the stars, then they go back home and think about them while they’re drinking their wine.” 

The hard work that Chris and others put in to provide this full service and experience seems to be paying off. Chris says the South Australian brand has significant cut through with Chinese wine drinkers. 

“There is a strong requirement by most Asian markets to have South Australia on the wine and it gives you a better leverage into the market if you can see the wine is from South Australia, as distinct even to South Eastern Australia,” he says. 

The view of the vines from Barossa Trading and Bottling Co

The view of the vines from Barossa Trading and Bottling Co

This specific recognition of South Australia – which comes with great potential to boost trade by putting Adelaide on the radar of tourists and international students – is further bolstered by Chinese-South Australian collaboration in the arts field. 

South Australia has a sister province in Shandong, and Adelaide enjoys a freshly-minted sister city relationship with Shandong’s largest city – Qingdao. The Adelaide Festival Centre is a major player in Sino-SA relations, and runs several programs and festivals that facilitate cultural exchange with our sister locales. 

Amongst these is an internship venture – the Hawke Fellowship – which brings young arts administrators over from China every year and, of course, there’s the now well-established OzAsia Festival.

“Our Shandong relationship  – in the last two years has benefitted from a very strong underpinning from the Central Cultural Ministry in Bejing, the State Government here and the local government of Shandong,” says Centre CEO and Artistic Director Douglas Gautier. 

“We’re talking about a province that is 100 million people, the birthplace of Confuscius – a major cultural force in China. Alongside all the things we’re trying to do on a state to province level – in terms of education, research exchange, trade exchange and business – it has become very clear that the Chinese have said ‘that’s great, but we take our culture very seriously so we want to see some cultural exchange here’. 

“So OzAsia focuses on Shandong this year and has a massive program with 150 performers and artists from that province. This is one of the biggest Chinese cultural programs we have ever seen in this country.”

Adelaide Festival Centre's Douglas Gautier

Adelaide Festival Centre’s Douglas Gautier

Douglas believes this interchange strengthens local regard in China for South Australia and creates a meaningful connection between the two countries – and corporate businesses tend to agree, if sponsorship spend is any yardstick to measure by. 

“Of all our Festivals, OzAsia now is the one that garners the biggest sponsorship,” Douglas says. 

“Of all our Festivals, OzAsia now is the one that garners the biggest sponsorship. A lot of corporates take the view that the Asian connection is increasingly important…” – Douglas Gautier

“A lot of corporates take the view that the Asian connection is increasingly important on two fronts. One, with external relations – partnerships with Asian governments and Asian businesses, secondly a more domestic focus to do with retail opportunities and relationships with local Asian communities. So more and more, with OzAsia, the business community is seeing the real value in it as a platform.”

In this environment, where cultural and trade ties have formed so organically between our state and regions of a country that is rapidly growing and in need of an ever-increasing amount of goods and services, it’s a wonder that local government hadn’t joined the party sooner. But, surprisingly (or not, depending on your view), until earlier this year Adelaide remained the only mainland capital city without a sister city in China.  

Adelaide Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood

Adelaide Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood

This oversight was addressed when Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood announced in May that our first new sister city relationship since 1983 would be with the aforementioned Qingdao – one of China’s largest cities and home of the very delicious Tsingtao beer. 

Adelaide’s existing sister city relationships – with Himeji in Japan, Christchurch in New Zealand, Austin in the USA and George Town in Malaysia – have sometimes been criticised as symbolic at best and an excuse for political junkets at worst, but the Qingdao deal seems to have tangible significance built on measureable benefits. 

“South Australia actually exports hops and barley to make the beer there,” says the Lord Mayor. “And Flinders University has had a partnership with Qingdao University for a while. The more I look into it, the more I discover there’s quite a bit of State Government investment in the politics there too because the Premier and other Ministers have been going over there for quite some time. 

“So it was really about the fact that there was a genuine opportunity not to start a new relationship but to add value to a relationship that was already happening.”

The delegations that traveled to Qingdao in the formative stages of the sister city negotiations included Stephen himself, bureaucrats and a variety of South Australian business people. Many of the latter are already seeing increased interest from potential clients there. Stephen says this will be the ongoing value of the relationship with Qingdao.

“The opportunity to take businesses with me to China, or for the relationship to provide them an introduction into China, means you get around more red tape than you can imagine. It’s a fast-track process that is quite profound and can’t be underestimated,” he says. 


Chris says Chinese wine drinkers tend to drink the outside of the bottle before they drink its contents. Design is as important in that market as the taste – sometimes even more so – and that creates opportunity for SA designers with specialist knowledge of China to offer lucrative niche services.

Stephen also sees potential for Adelaide to become a more recognised focus for Chinese students looking to study in Australia, and hopes Adelaide architects might be able to form relationships with the busy developers of Qingdao who might benefit from their services. 

All of these blossoming trade and cultural opportunities will likely see Chris Grigoriou joined on his next flight to China by other South Australian business people from diverse industries – which can only be good news for the state’s economy. 

But for the man who has been exporting wine to communist China for more than 15 years – building trust internationally and learning the ins-and-out of the country’s bureaucracy, ports and highways – little will change in his day-to-day.

He’ll keep filling 16,000 – 17,000 glass bottles with local wine every weekday and sending it out across the region. With each glass that is drunk at an Asian bar or dinner table, another friend will be made for South Australia.

Share —