Wine Business in India – Opportunity or Dilemma?

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Re-plugging this popular post on LinkedIn for the benefit of  the followers of this site.

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The Indian wine ecosystem is evolving and with the rising profile of wine there is a lot of interest in business opportunities available in the sector. But what are the challenges? More importantly, how feasible is it to enter a business whose target market is less than 1% of the total population?
I have always considered the Indian wine market an enigma – on the one hand there is a seemingly eternal and ceaseless optimism about its future, on the other, on-the-ground realities and challenges seem to be too big to overcome in realising its true potential. But this has not deterred many optimists to venture into this tricky market, achieving mixed results at best.

As an active member of the Indian wine community, I am often asked about business opportunities and the pros and cons related to various types of wine businesses here. Although most queries reflect the above mentioned quandary of a wannabe entrepreneur and existing businesses elsewhere, it is also interesting to notice that many feel that the time is right to be a part of the Indian wine story. A lot of this optimism can be attributed to the buzz created by media stories, a lot of which unfortunately is often recycled and are far from ground realities. Therefore personally, I always take a cautious approach in this matter, not because I am not hopeful of its future but due to a realistic assessment of the present market conditions that are far from being conducive for existing wine businesses, let alone new ventures.

So what are the opportunities of entering the Indian wine market?

Let’s explore three areas which attract the imagination of most people nowadays when they think of the setting up a wine business in India. A vast majority of the queries that I receive relate to these sectors.

Import/distribution: This remains the most sought after option of entering the market but also has a disturbingly high failure rate as the short and medium term returns in this business are disproportionately low vis-a-vis the initial investment. Those aware of the market know that in the last few years, many importers have shut shop in India, some incurring heavy losses.

The survival, scalability and subsequent success of import and distribution of wines is only possible if substantial volumes are generated in the on-trade segment, which remains the main source of wine consumption in India. With hotels offering a meagre 20 to 25% on of CIF (Cost, Insurance & Freight), the margins often get diluted in huge costs a bottle of wine incurs upon arrival on Indian shores – customs duties, bonding & warehousing, taxes to state governments, brand registration charges, renewal of registrations, transportation etc. This leaves very little at the hand of the importer, a reason why achieving volumes is the key. Since this poses a big challenge, many have added spirits and beers to their portfolio which offer better margins and certainly volumes. A point in case is Brindco, India’s largest importer and distributor, whose success can largely be attributed to the top brands of spirits & beers it represents in India, including those from the multinational behemoths like Diageo & Brown-Forman.

Then comes the complex task of creating and mastering the art of smoothly operating a distribution network. You can either create your own or use an existing network to reach your customers. While the first requires huge cash injection and fulfilling endless legal obligations, the latter will see your cost skyrocketing and margins plummeting.

Finally, there is always the competition to deal with. A new entrant will not only have to put in everything to grab a share of a highly sought-after pie, he also has to find ways to remain relevant for the long term – no mean ask in a highly competitive but very limited marketplace.

Wine E-commerce: Although India is witnessing an online revolution with eCommerce start-ups leading the way, wine is unlikely to be a benefactor of this boom in the near future, mainly owing to strict (and archaic) government laws related to alcohol consumption. Apart from plethora of hurdles in selling alcoholic products online, the logistical nightmares of lawfully operating such businesses can be too many. Take home delivery for instance, which is an integral component of an entire eComm cycle – a lot of state governments do not allow alcoholic products to be delivered at home making it extremely difficult to justify the very existence of such businesses. Some online wine sellers have found a way of circumventing this problem by routing the orders through retailers who in turn deliver the wines to customers, illegally in most cases.

One should also be mindful of the risks of online wine businesses due to the socio-political sensitivity to alcohol. It may not come as a surprise if one day the government cracks the whip and decides to ban any form of liquor sale on the internet anywhere the country. Many state governments have done so in the past and there is no guarantee that such a step will not become a pan India phenomenon in the future.

Retail: This, in my view is going to be the future of wine business in India. With rising awareness, coupled with highly restrictive prices in the on-trade segment, consumers will slowly drift towards buying wines from retail. It will also be in line with the trend in other wine economies where wine retail followed a natural progression to prominence and now contribute significantly to the local wine economy (Hong Kong & Singapore are good examples).

But there is a catch – since India is unique in terms of the challenges traditional alcohol businesses face, the key to success in any retail venture will also have to be unique. A typical brick and mortar and supermarket model has to be complemented by add-ons aimed at unwavering customer focus, mainly to educate and engage a loyal membership base. These may range from regular tasting & appreciation sessions, brand training, wine masterclasses, paired dinners etc.
The Indian wine story stands at the crossroads where it will either find a much anticipated relevance in the world of wine or will remain a laggard owing to the burden of strict laws and tax regimes. Any new entrant in the business will have to find a way through this ‘either/or’ dilemma to decide whether to set up shop in the country.

Cheers,

Niladri

LinkedIn Post 1: The Drivers of Modern Wine Industry

Those active on LinkedIN may know that the professional networking site has just launched an article/blog publishing platform for some of its millions of users. The idea is to allow the members to make the most of targeted reach to fellow professionals and industry watchers.

As an active user of LinkedIN, I wanted to take advantage of this new feature and share my thoughts about a very interesting subject which I’ve been contemplating writing about (actually for this site, as I’ve been doing since 2008). So, I did end up writing on LI’s publisher and as expected, the response has been good. I am reproducing it here for the benefit of readers of this site. (See original)

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The wine industry and its functioning as we know today – dynamic and extremely progressive, is a far cry from a confined and traditional affair about two decades ago. While globalization has played a vital role, increased consumer awareness and a corresponding demand for more refined products and services, is at the crux of this dramatic transformation within a relatively short period of time. This demand, in turn, has given rise to various organisations and ideas which have helped shape up the contemporary trade and enhance its global appeal. In fact, wine’s rising popularity around the globe, especially in the last decade, wouldn’t have been possible without these innovative brands and smart individuals behind them. In a sense they represent the building blocks of the modern wine world.

Wine’s fascinating turnaround story is often measured by its commercial success worldwide, which is reflective in the stories we mostly come across in the media – like this recent one about most powerful wine brands. But in spite of economics being the ultimate yardstick of wine’s increasing footprint, the industry owes a great deal to the actual drivers of the contemporary business. The list below mentions the most notable of these brands, with an international presence and irrespective of their commercial prowess.
1.) Technology: Most of these are young companies which followed the start-up route during the wine boom of the late nineties and the first decade of this century. They have not only acted as vital connectors of information highways of the wine world but also simplified the way we gather information.

  • CellarTracker: Those who use/follow CT swear by it, and why wouldn’t they? A one of its kind cellar management tool, it is the largest and most credible platform for serious wine lovers with an enviable database of tasting notes, wine reviews and recommendations. Eric LeVine‘s gift to the wine world is an invaluable one and will remain so for a long time to come.
  • Wine-Searcher.com: If there is one organization which has brought transparency and accountability to the online wine trade, it undoubtedly has to be Wine- Searcher.com. Since its inception in 1999 in London (later moved to New Zealand), the company has gone through a dramatic transformation – both as a wine search engine, which remains its USP, and in its latest avatar as a wine news and information site. I had the good fortune of being a part of Wine-Searcher’s wine team and witness its raw ability to empower the wine consumer. Its strength lies in the amount of data it has accumulated over the years, and more importantly the ingenious way the data is integrated to fuel its search engine software.
  • Social & professional networking sites: With the advent of web 2.0 and the corresponding rise of social media, it seems there is no limit to how much wine information is now available online, most of which is dynamic and real time. Today’s vibrant wine ecosystem is unimaginable without Facebook Likes & shares, Twitter’s witty one liners, LinkedIn’s professional inputs or Instagram’s creative photo sharing.
  • Apps, apps & more apps (more the merrier!): With the increase of tech-savvy wine consumers, social media engagement and usage of mobile devices, it is but natural that so many mobile apps have flooded the market of late. They offer a host of features, ranging from label scanning for tasting notes and ratings, to those which let you sift through restaurant wine lists remotely, plus many many more.

2.) R&D, education & training: This sector of the industry is probably the most vital considering the scope and opportunities of spreading knowledge and information, particularly in young and upcoming wine cultures. A case in point is this short video about China’s rise as a major wine market (note that education is the most common keyword here).

  • WSET: The Wine & Spirits Education Trust is at the forefront of wine education in the world. Whether it is basic wine knowledge or specialist qualifications, WSET’s contribution in spreading awareness about wine remains unparalleled.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers: The hospitality industry provides a major source of wine consumption and enjoyment around the world and therefore it is of utmost importance that a trained manpower is available to fulfill this requirement. CMS offers major industry-recognized sommelier certifications, including the holy grail that is Master Sommelier.
  • Other wine education providers: While there are many institutes around the world offering wide ranging courses; from wine production to marketing, there are some which have carved a niche for themselves. The likes of Roseworthy (University of Adelaide) and UC Davis stand out for their quality of wine production courses, whereas BEM Bordeaux has emerged as a chosen destination for business related studies.
  • AWRI: A pioneer in R&D field, the Australian Wine Research Institute’s repertoire of ground-breaking research, especially in wine production, has helped producers around the world to overcome many challenges in the vineyard and winery, resulting in creation of more refined products. Whether it is advanced vineyard management, improving vine health, clonal research, sustainability innovations, simplifying wine microbiology, demystifying wine ageing, important studies on wine closures or valuable research on market behavior and consumer preferences, this organization’s list of research work has made it indispensable to the wine industry.

Then there are organizations like Wine Intelligence and IWSR (International Wine & Spirit Research) who excel in keeping track of market sentiments through specialized studies which include a range of market insights, trends and consumer behaviors, among others.

3.) The marketplace:With rapidly changing business dynamics and fierce competition among brands to capture new markets, there has been a revolution of sorts in how wine is sold today. While brick and mortar outlets still exist, their monopoly has steadily declined and replaced by numerous other ways consumers are able to source wine today.

  • Liv-Ex: Although not a place where you can directly buy wine, it makes to this list solely on the basis of the unique proposition it brings to the fine wine market. It is like the wine world’s stock market, where wines are traded online and over phone and valued against Liv-Ex’s large data of historical and current wine prices. Those with a stake in the fine wine market or wish to have their fingers on the pulse of the market, consider it as an invaluable resource.
  • Online wine stores: Wine e-commerce is big business today and with technology playing a big role in the promotion of the beverage, it is hardly surprising that they have mushroomed all over the world and catering to a big chunk of the market.
  • Futures market: Buying/selling wines as futures is not a new phenomenon but in today’s wine economy it has gained added significance owing to a renewed focus on premium wines and a healthy perception of them being good source of alternative investment. No wonder, the futures/en primeur market is seen as a barometer of a country’s fine wine potential.
  • Auction market: Those who followed the wine boom of the last five years which unfolded in the east, especially in Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China, realize the importance of the auction market in generating a wave of interest and passion about the beverage. One may argue that this form of trading is super niche and hence has limited reach but the buzz which accompanies fine wine auctions is enough to make this form of trading a significant player in today’s wine economy.

4.) Critics, writers and domain experts: The contemporary wine world owes a lot to these individuals for spreading their wisdom and knowledge about wines and who positively influence our thoughts/opinions about the beverage. Whether it is an acclaimed writer, a prolific blogger or a mass-followed taster and critic, they have deep understanding about the subject and the dynamics of our industry. Thanks to their efforts, coupled with opening of new channels of communication, wine’s appreciation is on a steady rise worldwide. (The list of such personalities is too long to be included here).

5.) Sommeliers: The new breed of sommeliers are not just traditional wine servers – they are the new-age ambassadors of wine wielding enormous clout in the trade, a reason the hospitality industry lays a lot of emphasis in hiring top sommeliers to run their wine programs.

6.) The wine media: Last but not the least, how can our vinous thirst be quenched without the regular supply of news, views and analysis about virtually everything happening around the wine world? In spite of alternative sources of information (read social media) making inroads in the wine ecosystem, a vibrant mainstream wine media is still, and will remain, the primary source information.

Cheers,

Niladri

Delhi’s top wine destinations – part two

This is the second part of the story and features restaurants in five star hotels with exceptional wine offerings. A version of this was published in Time Out Delhi’s special wine edition ‘The Grape Escape’, under the title Veni, Vidi, Vino. I am posting the original and unedited version here for the benefit of the readers of this blog.

The first part which featured standalone restaurants can be accessed here. I recommend you read the first part before continuing here, as it sets the overall objective of the entire exercise of writing about these wine destinations for Time Out Delhi.

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San Gimignano, The Imperial

Janpath Lane, Connaught Place, New Delhi

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Imperial’s San Gimignano offers an idyllic setting for food & wine enjoyment

There are very few restaurants in Delhi that can boast of playing a trendsetting role in the city’s food and wine and fine-dining landscape. Imperial’s San Gimignano not only occupies the top echelons of that list but is also recognised for maintaining extremely high standards of food and wine offerings over the years.

Named after the eponymous hill town of Tuscany, San Gimignano epitomises the region’s world-famous wine and gastronomic heritage. A well-crafted wine list packed with the choicest of labels complements the best of Italian cuisine. Out of the 390 odd labels, unsurprisingly, a bias towards Italian wines is evident, although many other classical wine regions also feature prominently. From the ubiquitous Chianti to the cult known as Ornellaia Masseto, the Italian wine selection is a perfect match with the signature items on the menu, some of which are apparently made with generous additions of premium Italian wines.

The quaint and private, yet highly sophisticated interior of the restaurant is ideal for an indulgent food and wine experience. But if you enjoy a livelier, alfresco experience, opt for a seat in the snow-white and blemish-less courtyard outside, aptly named the ‘Paradiso del Vino’ or the ‘Paradise of Wine’.

The wine list:

Main Feature: Carefully chosen Italian wine selection.

Strengths: Top names from Bordeaux, Burgundy and of course a vast selection of Italian wines from all the country’s wine producing regions.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 12, across types and styles. For those new to the restaurant, this may seem to be too limited but apparently it is a conscious decision as most guests prefer to order bottles of wines to enjoy over a long meal.

What to look out for (specials): Alfresco dining at the Paradiso del Vino and Chef special menu paired with wines.

Food & wine recommendations: Try out their Tagliolini Con Salsa Di Frutti Di Mare Champagne (homemade tagliollini pasta with a delicate champagne seafood sauce). Pair this with a crisp cold-climate Chardonnay/ Ribolla Gialla blend on the list from the Friulli-Venezia region, like ‘Livio Felluga Sharis delle Venezie IGT’.

Another signature dish, Scallopine Di Pollo (crumb fried chicken breast with parsley butter sauce and capers), is a good partner with the light to medium bodied and fruity Allegrini Valpolicella.

Price range: Expensive. A meal for two with wines on an average costs about Rs. 15000 plus taxes, where the price of wine considered is in the range of Rs. 7000 to 8000.

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Threesixty° & Enoteca, The Oberoi

Opposite Delhi public School, Dr Zakir Hussain Marg, New Delhi

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Threesixty° at The Oberoi offers the most complete wine experience in Delhi

Any mention of Delhi’s food and wine destinations is incomplete without the special reference to Threesixty° at The Oberoi. A melting pot of delectable world cuisine complemented with a selection of wines to crave for, this iconic address has always been on top in the itinerary of the city’s diners.

The restaurant has many distinguishing factors which separate it from its peers in the industry. Most will agree that the prime among these are the sheer variety and quality of food on offer, in addition to the superb service so intrinsic to Oberoi hospitality. But wine also plays a major role in shaping up the restaurant’s overall profile. In fact many would argue that the wine-friendly setting of Threesixty° is its main draw.

Enoteca – the wine bar, wine library and tasting room – all rolled in one is a customised and climate-controlled wine cellar strategically located at the entrance of the restaurant and acts as the centre stage of all its wine activities. It is perhaps the biggest visible cellar in town, consisting of over 1200 bottles and over 150 labels of wines. An ideal place to tickle one’s vinous senses, it is legendary as a hub for wine tastings in a setting nowhere else to be experienced in the city.

There are many other reasons why Threesixty° carries the worthy distinction of a genuine food & wine destination of the highest order. Some of the most notable among these are; one of Delhi’s most lavish spreads in Sunday brunch accompanied by choicest of Champagnes, a private dining experience for groups at the glass-encased private dining room, customised wine dinners, and many more.

The wine list:

Main Features: Vast selection of cuisines and wines from around the world. Interactive dining experience. Wine sampling at the Enoteca.

Strength: A carefully designed list with healthy representation from almost all the major wine regions of the world.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 12 across types and styles, including two sparklings.

What to look out for (specials): Sunday brunch with choice of Champagnes. Wine sampling at the Enoteca.

Food & wine recommendations: For appetizer, you can try their famous ‘Thai Pomelo Salad’ paired with a well-chilled Henri Bourgeois Sancerre. Among the many choices for the main course, the ‘Threesixty Baluchi Raan’ is a highlight. You can pair this signature dish with the Rupert Rothschild Merlot.

Price range: Expensive. Average cost for meal for two with wine is around 10000 plus taxes assuming two glasses of wine are consumed per person, during a 3 course meal (appetizers, main course and dessert).

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Masala Art, Taj Palace

2, Sardar Patel Marg, Diplomatic Enclave, New Delhi

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Masala Art is one of the very few Indian cuisine restaurants in Delhi where wine plays an important role in the overall dining experience

Food and beverage has always been a prime focus at the Taj Group of Hotels, aptly demonstrated by the myriad of highly sought-after brands across their properties in India. Delhi accounts for a fair share of these restaurants, with some deserving special mention owing to the incorporation of effective wine programmes in their overall F&B offerings. Masala Art at the Taj Palace is one such restaurant which stands out for its commitment to promote wine as the beverage of choice for diners. Whether it is the wine-focussed happy hour with its one is to one offer on specially chosen wine bottles, wine paired dinners, or on-the-table recommendations of chosen wines with the restaurant’s signature dishes, the dining experience in the restaurant is enhanced with the inclusion of wines.

The group’s long standing focus on its wine programme also appropriately reflects in Masala Art’s wine list, which scores highly on key parameters like depth, variety and exclusivity. It features in excess of 450 labels from almost every major wine region of the world, including more than 20 competitively priced wines-by-the-glass. The knowledgeable staff is always at hand to suggest wines based on your preference as well as the combination of masalas (Indian spices) and cooking style.

The restaurant’s contemporary take on presenting rustic Indian cuisine with a western-style interactive food preparation is a welcome change for the city’s Indian food lovers. And the judicious addition of wines to its repertoire has only underlined Masala Art’s endeavour to offer its guests the very best in fine dining experience.

The Wine List: 

Main Feature: Vast selection of international wines presented in a neat, user-friendly design.

Strengths: Equal focus on every style and type of wine representing all major wine regions.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 22 well priced wines specially selected with the compatibility to food in mind.

What to look out for (specials): Wine paired set menu. Interactive kitchen where you can get your dish custom made. Happy hour between 6.30 pm and 8 pm where there is a one-is-to-one offer on international wines.

Food & wine recommendations: The ‘Chatpata Crab’ is an interesting dish to try. Made with tangy and aromatic spices, an equally zesty and flavourful Riesling comes to mind as a worthy partner. Try the glass of St. Urbans-Hof Riesling Kabinett from Germany’s Mosel with this item.

Staying with seafood and an equally strongly aromatic dish, the ‘Jheenge ka salan’ is also worth sampling with a Kessler Gewürztraminer Grand Cru 2006.

Price range: Expensive. Average cost of meal for two with wine is around 10000 plus taxes assuming two glasses of wine are consumed per person.

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Le Cirque, Leela Palace

Diplomatic Enclave, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi

Le Cirque
The chic & upmarket Le Cirque scores highly not only for its avant-garde food but also for the largest wine selection in town

Le Cirque at the Leela is India’s most high profile import in the luxury restaurant segment, and since the iconic New York brand debuted in Delhi, it has left an indelible mark on the capital’s fine dining scene. Carrying on the tradition of exemplary food and wine offerings in its original home, Le Cirque has also created a cult following among a niche clientele in the capital.

The French-Italian cuisine served at the restaurant uses only the very best quality ingredients – a large proportion of which is imported. The flavour and texture of the carefully crafted dishes demand the best possible wines to enhance their sensory and taste profile. The wine list has been designed keeping this in mind and features a huge selection of top quality wines (more than 500 labels appear on the list), many belonging to the cult or super-premium category.

The wine list has many other eye-catching features; one of them being the largest collection of Champagne in town; 30 in total, across all possible styles. It also has an enviable collection of fine wines from classical wine regions of France, Italy and Germany. The representation from the New World is mainly led by Australia and USA.

Le Cirque’s reputation in the Delhi fine dining market is as much about glitz, gloss and glamour as it is for the world-renowned food and an eclectic collection of wines. So, if your idea of a dining extravaganza involves pure luxury and you are not constrained by budget, this may be the right place for pampering your epicurean soul.

The wine list:

Main Feature: Sheer number and variety of labels from almost every wine region of the world.

Strengths: Focus on traditional strongholds of the Old World, namely France and Italy and a wide selection of types and styles from the New World.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 20 with a good balance of grape varieties and styles.

What to look out for (specials): More than 30 champagnes with all the recognisable names, styles and price points possible.

Food & Wine recommendations: The ‘Lobster Risotto’ with subtle infusions of rosemary and capers is a must try. Pair this iconic dish with your choice of a Vintage Champagne or an elegant white Burgundy from the extensive wine selection.

For those looking to try one of Le Cirque’s signature red meat items, the succulent ‘French Lamb Noisette’ is a must-try, paired with a New World Pinot Noir like the stylish Villa Maria Pinot Noir from New Zealand.

Price range: Expensive. A meal for two with wines would cost Rs. 16000 plus taxes, on an average, with most moderately priced wines and wine-by-the-glass. Depending on the kind of wines you consume and in most cases this amount is likely to be much higher.

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Cheers,

Niladri

The curious case of India & China’s love for wine

Wine has largely been a Western indulgence until the turn of this century, when, the rise of China and India, in addition to other Eastern economies, signaled a new happy hunting ground for the beautiful beverage. What are the factors that dictate wine’s stellar rise in popularity in this part of the world? Most importantly, is this emergence of a new ‘New World’ and sign of things to come in the world wine scene?

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In its long recorded history, the wine world has witnessed many defining eras which shaped up its cultural contours and market dynamics. The last two centuries have been particularly important in wine’s overall evolution. While the 19th century was marked by the advent of a much imitated classification system, spread of Vinifera vines outside Europe and the Phylloxera epidemic, the 20th century was shaped up by the great depression, emergence of the New World, rise and influence of the wine critic/writer and globalization of the beverage.

In recent times, and majority of the 21st century, three significant factors have influenced the wine market – the rise of the East as a major wine destination, preponderance of technology and social media in wine promotion and the global financial meltdown of 2008/09. While the latter was thankfully short-lived, and social media’s influence today spreads across every sphere of human lives, wine’s popularity in non-traditional wine drinking countries, especially in Asia, is somewhat intriguing and arouses curiosity.

Unlike their counterparts in Europe where wine has been an intrinsic part of the culture since time immemorial, the East’s (and especially its two behemoths, China and India) affection for the beverage is rather new-found and recent. With a few exceptions, quality wine-drinking in Asia does not even go back a decade. But one look at the popularity and growth trends, in addition to immense stature wine now enjoys in this part of the world, suggest that the East has definitely arrived on the wine scene.

So what explains this rise in popularity in such a short period of time, in what was once considered an ignorant market for wine?

To begin with, it is well-established and well-documented that Economic growth is in the core of China and India’s thirst for wine. But are there other associated and independent factors which have contributed to this new-found admiration for the beverage? Let’s explore:

# Demography >>> Rapid economic advancement and wealth generation in China and India has created a demography with high disposable incomes, mostly spent on the pleasures of life. This mostly comprises of an aspirational middle class and an outward-looking young generation – well-informed, well-traveled and cosmopolitan, who are as comfortable being global citizens as Indians or Chinese. Wine drinking may not come naturally to them but this section of the society  certainly fosters the desire to learn and adapt to new ways of life, a reason more and more young people are changing their drinking habits and switching to wine from other beverages.

# New paradigms of wine and food pairingold clichés are dead >>> One of the most significant developments of this era has been the debunking of many stereotypical food & pairing specifications, which has helped in promoting wines in countries where the local cuisines were earlier thought unfit for marrying with wine. Whether it is the lighter style of Pan-Asian food and its more complex variants involving redolent herbs and condiments, or the exotic aromas of Indian spices, wine’s compatibility with Asian cuisines are being defined anew and with renewed gusto.

On one hand, the proponents of ‘aromatic wines only for Asian food’ theory are having a re-look at their food & wine pairing approach, on the other, the hospitality industry is acting as the catalyst for this reform. One has to flip through the wine lists of luxury hotels and engage with professional sommeliers to realize the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the overall mindset of drinking a vast array of wine styles with local food.

Decoding Indian cuisine by individual spices helps in food pairing decisions. GSM blends and Zinfandels are good matches with dishes rich in sweet Indian spices
Decoding Indian cuisine by individual spices helps in food pairing decisions. GSM blends and Zinfandels are good matches with dishes rich in sweet Indian spices

Nowadays, it is commonplace to find wine lists which embrace and promote Zinfandels and Tempranillos with equal ease and confidence as the much favored Rieslings and Gewürztraminers.

# Accessibility to information and knowledge >>> Gone are the days when wine literature was confined to paperbacks and high-end, glossy magazines. Today there is hardly any information about wine which cannot be accessed online. Although a global phenomenon, Asians, especially in countries like India and China, have made knowledge gathering through internet a way of their lives. And quite understandably, this has resulted in a new-age way of wine learning, which in turn is aiding the spread of a healthy wine culture.

The demand for wine knowledge has also resulted in the birth of a thriving wine media, both online and print, which are acting as information hubs for the knowledge seeking folks.

# Quality training and education >>> During the last decade, the level of formal wine education and training for trade and general wine appreciation programs for the consumer have improved considerably. Education providers like the WSET have proliferated throughout the two countries, uplifting the overall awareness of wine. Additionally, there are many private organizations which offer regular wine sampling and food pairing courses to the urban wannabe enthusiasts. All these have contributed in the learning and promotion of wine.

Training and wine appreciation workshops are playing a vital role in creating a healthy wine culture
Training and wine appreciation workshops are playing a vital role in creating a healthy wine culture

# Rapid urbanization >>> According to findings by McKinsey Global Institute in 2010, both China and India are experiencing unprecedented urbanization, resulting in noticeable churns in almost every sphere of life in these geographies. Wine, being a part of urban lifestyle, is probably one of the few highly desirable consumer products which has directly benefited from this social transformation.

# Rise of the Sommelier >>> The hospitality sector which propels the wine juggernaut in the two countries has taken a leaf out of their American and European counterparts in projecting the sommelier as a worthy wine ambassador. Today it is commonplace to find certified and professionally trained sommeliers in branded restaurants all over the region.

Armed with technical expertise and passion for the subject, these sommeliers (and other wine professionals) have become the de-facto wine evangelists capable of influencing wine drinking habits in their respective geographies. Many of them regularly appear in the media also to share the virtues of wine drinking and their overall enjoyment.

# Wine Events >>> China, led by Hong Kong and Shanghai, has undoubtedly become an important wine events destination of the world. Whether it is Vinexpo, numerous trade events, high profile fine-wine dinners hosted by who’s who of the wine industry or events organized by various wine-producing countries’ trade bodies, each has contributed to the wine buzz in the country.

Wine events like the annual Vinexpo have significantly contributed to wine’s popularity in China
Wine events like the annual Vinexpo have significantly contributed to wine’s popularity in China

India, in comparison, is yet to become a hot international events destination, although in the last couple of years the country has witnessed many high profile wine dinners, niche consumer events and wine festivals. Reputed names like the Hospices de Beaune, top Bordeaux chateaux and many acclaimed producers from across the world have included India as part of their annual Asian itinerary.  These have prepared the groundwork for many such future events, in addition to generating heightened interest among the wine loving community in the country.

# Wine as a health drink >>> Health benefits of wine is an in-vogue topic in the mainstream as well as wine media in the two countries. With cardiac diseases on the rise in this part of the world and severe medical stigma attached to spirit consumption, wine, with its heart-friendly qualities has found a large dedicated fan following.

Wine’s soaring popularity in India and China and its impact on their drinking culture and trade has firmly placed the two countries on the world wine map. Experts believe, and rightly so, that in spite of many ‘teething problems’ like fraudulent practices and fakery in China and highly discriminatory and restrictive taxation regime on imported wines in India, the two countries have demonstrated all the potential to become worthy torch bearers of the East’s wine renaissance. There is every indication that this new-found affection will culminate in a life-long relationship.

Cheers,

Niladri

Why the Robert Parker brand is irrelevant in India

This post is in response to an article which appeared in the delWine website a few days ago. While it eruditely laid down the hype and commercial implications of wine ratings, the selective role of Robert Parker as a wine critic emerged as one of the highlights of the piece. This gives us an opportunity to find out what India thinks about the emperor of wine and what does his ratings mean to the Indian wine business?

Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

It is inevitable that whenever wine ratings are discussed, Robert Parker, by default, becomes the focal point, and it is no different in the mentioned article also. No one in the knowledge of the world wine industry can deny the influence of his ratings on the trade. I have personally written and spoken about this at different forums, particularly his expertise and fascination with a few chosen wine regions and their wines (Bordeaux and California happen to be on the top).

To understand Robert Parker’s eminence as a wine critic, one has to study the man’s rise following the pronouncements of 1982 Bordeaux vintage. He was probably the only expert who stuck his neck out in conviction about the quality of  this vintage when most others wrote-off the year as average. The fact that it turned out to be one of the best vintages of  the century in subsequent tastings, was a vindication of his unquestionable tasting abilities. Incidentally, most who disagreed with him in the beginning had to fall in line with his ratings. This was not only the start of the making of ‘Robert Parker brand’ but also a sign of things to come for the future – the emergence of the ultimate wine critic in true sense, a cult-like figure who possesses a unique ability to affect wine price indices with a single whiff, sip and stroke of his pen.

Like most critics, in addition to a large army of dedicated followers, he has his fair share of detractors too, who feel that ‘Parkerization’ of the wine world has done more harm than good to wine’s cause. While many call him biased and manipulative, there are also those who feel that he is the best thing that could have happened to the modern wine world.

But in spite of Parker’s standing as one of the tallest authorities of wine ratings in rest of the wine world, his influence in affecting drinking habits and the trade in India is almost non-existent. The Parker effect, if any, happens indirectly and outside the country’s boundaries where prices are decided as per his ratings. Inside India, so far there has been no indication of any significant impact of his ratings and reviews.

Why Parker and his ratings are not important in the current Indian wine scene:

1.)  We are not a fine wine consuming nation, which happens to be Parker’s strongest domain. The consumption of wines rated 90+ and more by him is limited to a miniscule part of the wine drinking community in this country (price and availability being the two main reasons). Although there is no data to suggest how small this segment might be, it can be safely assumed that it is in the sub-zero percentage, when compared to the overall price brackets.

The same is true when it comes to collectible and investment grade wines.

2.)  Overwhelming majority of Indian wine consumers do not know the break-up and significance of the 100-point rating scale. Therefore  all the talk about a wine’s placement in the market just based on Robert Parker’s scores does not make any difference. At the most, it is nothing more than a numbers game which only the wine importers like to highlight as strong selling  propositions to the top hotels

3.)  One of the major areas of Parker’s influence is a category which belongs to the futures trade (En Primeur). Since this segment hardly features in the Indian trade, his ratings of these wines are of little or no consequence to the market in the country

4.)  In contrary to suggestions made in the article, even the hospitality industry does not consider it necessary to factor-in Parker or Wine Spectator ratings when selecting wines for their portfolio. Appellation, vintage and brand recognition play much more significant roles in wine selections. Therefore, the reason a 2000 Chateau Petrus ends up in a luxury hotel’s wine list is because the name has a tremendous brand value, belongs to a famous Bordeaux Right Bank appellation (Pomerol) and is from a great vintage. The fact that Parker scored this a perfect 100 is most likely to be a mere coincidence. Now, please don’t suggest that 2000 turned out to be a great vintage because of Parker’s ratings!

Why is this so? Simply because the role of critics in our drinking habits is negligible, to say the least. Ask any sommelier in the country and they will confirm that wines are never sold or selected based on critics’ ratings.

Now coming back to the article in question, and why I was tempted to express my views on the subject. Here are two examples from the article:

Example 1.

delWine1

I feel, this is just over the top! There was a time when this statement would have been true to a large extent but to suggest that he ‘single-handedly controls the wine rating system’ is unreasonable in today’s context. Thanks to many other equally capable (if not more) critics and credible wine review sites, it is no longer a one man show. Nowadays, many serious wine consumers and fine wine investors refer to multiple reviews and ratings before choosing their wines.

Leading wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com have realized this fact and it is becoming more and more common to find multiple ratings for a particular wine:

Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com
Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com

Example 2.

delWine2

The statement above is only partially true. No doubt that such scores are likely to add to the wine’s commercial value, but there are many wines scored 90 and below by Parker which are considered great value for money (better quality to price ratio). Additionally, there are also those which receive better scores later, following a period of bottle-aging. Generally, Parker mentions about the likely evolution of certain lower scoring wines into better products, in his tasting notes.

The rise and influence of the wine critic in conventional wine cultures is best exemplified by Robert Parker. An institution in himself, he has re-written the rules of the game which, many believe, will be the cornerstone of wine critiquing business for a long time to come. But as new wine cultures are born and new market dynamics emerge, Parker’s legacy may not have the same relevance. India is one such market where the man with ‘The Million Dollar Nose’ is yet to make a mark. Only time will tell if the Parker brand is able to mesmerise the Indian wine lover in times to come as it has for decades in other parts of the world.

Cheers,

Niladri

Restaurant ratings can be misleading, unlike (most) wine ratings

I wrote the following article for the delWine/Indian wine Academy website, which appeared under the title ‘Restaurant ratings can be misleading unlike wine‘.

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Vir Sanghvi’s latest article about the challenging exercise of rating restaurants deals with many valid issues, but also raises some extremely relevant questions  about the way such ratings are conducted and awards are decided.

Among other issues highlighted in the write-up related to likely aberrations in these ratings, one particular sentence calls for special introspection – “Our own awards, the HT Crystals are also far from perfect. The main awards are voted for by the readers of HT City so you can’t quibble with the people’s choices but honestly, public opinion can be strange!” Here, it is clear that the Hindustan Times sponsored main awards (like many others) are basically ‘People’s Choice Awards’ where the winners are decided by the number of votes they attract from the public.

Next, let’s consider who constitute the ‘public opinion’ in this case. Ideally it should be those who have either visited the restaurant or read and thoroughly grasped the reviews about its offerings and service. Anyone who does not fulfill these criteria is not fit to make an informed decision about rating a restaurant. And certainly not those who couldn’t care less about a restaurant’s placement in the market, like my aunt, for whom Orient Express and Wasabi are nothing more than a famous train and a Sushi accompaniment respectively!

Needless to mention that to rate a product or service objectively, one has to be aware of them to start with, otherwise there will always be concerns about the usefulness of such awards as a guide to great dining options. Most importantly, the award organisers need to plug any loophole to ensure right people expressing their views. At the moment, this shortcoming may be getting overlooked.

Consider a probable scenario (which, by the way, is not a figment of any imagination) – as soon as the restaurants are shortlisted for a category, a scramble starts to gather as many votes as possible for a particular restaurant brand. Emails start floating inside the organisation asking employees, their friends and relatives to vote. Wherever unlimited SMS voting is permitted, it is encouraged to avail the facility to ensure that their chosen restaurant gets the maximum number of votes. Traditional workplaces where social media sites are not accessible, special provisions are made to enable employees to go to sites like Facebook to cast their votes. This practice does not seem too different from reality TV shows where the results are based on frenzied SMS voting, but isn’t it ironical to relegate the measurement of a restaurant’s stature to mere numbers?

While allowing employees to vote for their own restaurant is itself questionable, when others who have no way of determining the quality of a restaurant become a part of this ‘public opinion’, the entire exercise is bound to attract scrutiny. Can ratings based on the participating organisation’s own votes (staff + their family members & friends) be helpful to offer credible dining options to customers?

Such a model of rating restaurants is also likely to unfairly favour a large organisation which has aggressively generated internal votes. This is more likely to be relevant in close contests where the top F&B destination may be decided by a margin of few votes. Having said that, it will be a mistake to assume that all awards or category of awards are likely to be affected by this model of rating. Restaurants like Wasabi, Taipan, Dum Pukht, Indigo and La Piazza among others, have consistently proven their worth to make it to the top of the award charts and mass popularity, and quite deservedly so, irrespective of any minor anomalies in the rating system.

It should also be borne in mind that this by no means is an India only phenomenon. Even the most coveted of all restaurant awards, the Michelin star, has had to face charges of inconsistent rating system apart from other allegations of undue favouritism and bias.

In a nutshell, and in the light of the above challenges, no wonder user review sites like Tripadvisor and Zomato have become so popular for they have brought a level of transparency the hospitality industry so badly needs. As the Indian dining culture evolves and customers have more say in fixing accountability of the hospitality trade, the day is not far when actual customer feedback will be the deciding factor in a restaurant’s success or otherwise.

Lastly, as a wine professional I cannot help but compare the above model with highly recognised wine ratings and awards from around the world, although the dynamics are quite different for each; wine ratings are more objective and scientific while restaurant ratings are subjective and based on unique perceptions. Here I only mean those awards where the wines are tasted blind and judged on a variety of factors and in like-to-like categories.

In spite of the effectiveness of these ratings the wine industry world over is also adapting itself to accommodate user reviews. Websites like CellarTracker are playing a pioneering role in this field and have given a voice to wine consumers world over, which no one can ignore.

Cheers,

Niladri

Introducing the latest Champagne Scholarship winner from India

Sommelier Kathiravan
Sommelier Kathiravan Govindaraj

A brief post to announce and introduce the winner of the Champagne Scholarship, India, for this year.

As is well known within the industry, the WSET, along with Bureau du Champagne started offering this prestigious scholarship last year (Ravi Joshi won it in 2012) to an Indian candidate who has performed exceedingly well in the WSET Level 3 exam and who displays a strong commitment to the subject. Apart from the score in Level 3, the selection process for this award involves completing a written questionnaire to the selectors’ satisfaction followed by interviews. This selection process started in the last quarter of 2012 and the final result was recently declared.

It is with profound sense of pride and pleasure I introduce this year’s winner, Kathiravan Govindaraj, Sommelier extraordinaire of Sheraton Park Hotel, Chennai. Kathiravan was a part of the 18 ITC Hotels resources who underwent the comprehensive 45-day Level 3 wine training program conducted by yours truly at ITC Maurya in August/September 2011 (the first part of the comprehensive training initiatives in the organization). He was always the star performer during the training and internal assessments as well as in the WSET Level 3 exam, which he passed with a distinction (the only candidate to have achieved this in the group). Also, following the training he used his wine learning to very good effect in the hotel where he is the leading Sommelier, winning many guest accolades in addition to improving the wine sales. In fact, he is one of the most wine-focused F&B professionals within the ITC Hotels chain now.

The scholarhip will give him the opportunity to travel to the Champagne region for a comprehensive study tour.

I feel particularly proud to have trained and mentored Kathiravan throughout my time with ITC Hotels and this scholarship is almost like a parting gift for me. Now I hope that he uses this rare opportunity to propel his wine career in India. We need more dedicated wine professionals like him in the country.

Well done Kathir…see you on top!

Cheers,

Niladri