Stilbenes are central phytoalexins in Vitis, and induction of the key enzyme stilbene synthase (STS) is pivotal for disease resistance. Here, we address the potential for breeding resistance using an STS allele isolated from Chinese wild grapevine Vitis pseudoreticulata (VpSTS) by comparison with its homologue from Vitis vinifera cv. ‘Carigane’ (VvSTS). Although the coding regions of both alleles are very similar (>99% identity on the amino acid level), the promoter regions are significantly different. By expression in Arabidopsis as a heterologous system, we show that the allele from the wild Chinese grapevine can confer accumulation of stilbenes and resistance against the powdery mildew Golovinomyces cichoracearum, whereas the allele from the vinifera cultivar cannot. To dissect the upstream signalling driving the activation of this promoter, we used a dual-luciferase reporter system in a grapevine cell culture. We show elevated responsiveness of the promoter from the wild grape to salicylic acid (SA) and to the pathogen-associated molecular pattern (PAMP) flg22, equal induction of both alleles by jasmonic acid (JA), and a lack of response to the cell death-inducing elicitor Harpin. This elevated SA response of the VpSTS promoter depends on calcium influx, oxidative burst by RboH, mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signalling, and JA synthesis. We integrate the data in the context of a model where the resistance of V. pseudoreticulata is linked to a more efficient recruitment of SA signalling for phytoalexin synthesis.