At an Indian Wine Academy conference to coincide with the start of IFE-India 2005 in New Delhi , reports SOURISH BHATTACHARYYA , the message that emerged was mixed: India is a tough nut, but it's possible to crack it
Quoting the oft-repeated Latin maxim, In vino veritas (In wine you'll find the truth), the Ambassador of Spain in India , Rafael Conde, said wine helps people “perceive the truth about a country and its culture, its people and their beliefs.” Having made this point, the eloquent diplomat, who began his Indian innings a couple of years ago by serving paella to Delhi's elite, made a gentle point about the way hotels have outpriced wines.
“People must not view wines as an elitist product both financially and culturally. People must not see wine as a foppish extravaganza,” he said at the conference on the ‘Indian Wine Market: The Road Ahead' organised by the Indian Wine Academy at IFE-India 2005, the international food, drink and hospitality exhibition.
“Wines must also be evident at points of sale,” the ambassador added, making a case for wines being accessible everywhere in the country. Wine in Spain , he pointed out, is seen “as a primary necessity for the well-being and contentment of the people.”
Market data presented at the conference seemed to indicate that the Indian consuming class (pegged by the National Council for Applied Economic Research at 33 million people) shared the ambassador's well-articulated view.
At the ITC Maurya Sheraton, wine sales have zoomed from four to 120 bottles a day over the past two years, said Gautam Anand , Vice-President (Operations & Quality), ITC Hotels Division. Today, you can order wine even at an IT-operated hotel in Waltair, a former Dutch outpost on the Bay of Bengal , near the port town in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
At Olive Delhi, one of the three immensely successful restaurants conceptualised by AD Singh, wine sales have nearly doubled over the past one year, accounting for 49% of the outlet's alcoholic beverage sales, according to Anirban Sarkar , Olive's Executive Assistant Manager, who was representing Singh. “Our data indicated that 5% of our guests are knowledgeable about wines,” Sarkar said. “The rest are open to intelligent suggestive selling.”
The number of wine-consuming households has risen from 60,000 to 200,000, Ashwin Deo , Managing Director, Moet-Hennessy India , said. Moet-Hennessy, back in 1997, was the first international wine major to set up a representative office in India , before greenlighting a 100% subsidiary in 2001.
“The current per capita wine consumption in India is the equivalent of a teaspoon,” Deo said, “but the market growth rate doesn't seem to suggest that all this talk about wine is just a storm in a teaspoon.” Deo predicted that from the current level of 1,20,000 cases imported into the country, the market can definitely grow up to two million cases in ten years if it averages a 25% growth rate. At present, the wine market in India is clocking a 30% growth. With the Spanish ambassador setting the tone for the conference, the representatives of the two wine superpowers – France and Italy – followed his lead to highlight what Jean Leviol , Senior Economic, Financial and Trade Counsellor, Embassy of France in India , eloquently described as a “civilising, refined effect”. He said: “French cuisine wouldn't be the same without wine.” Echoing the thought, Mark Walford , a leading importer of Bordeaux wines in London , said the act of drinking wine was “infinitely civilised.” In London , he averred, “it is a fashion to drink wine … it is a way to show your sophistication.” More importantly, it was becoming a global experience – “you can get any wine produced anywhere in the world in Hong Kong,” Walford told an audience consisting of, among others, Helmut Seibert , Managing Director, Blue Nun; Franco Oliva , Deputy Director, International Olive Oil Council; David Launay of the respectable wine producer from Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, Chateau Gruaud Larose; Bill Marchetti , Corporate Chef (European Cuisine), ITC Hotels; and Aman Dhall of Brindco, India's biggest importer of wines.
Can India be that behind what is clearly a global trend? To be in sync with the world, we have a lot to learn from France . To quote Leviol, wine is part of the “cultural experience” in France . High-quality wines for everyday drinking sell for 5-20 euros in his country, he said, urging India to follow the lead. The counsellor also had a piece of sensible advice for Indians gravitating towards wine. “It is hard to tell the difference between one wine and another,” he said, “so just follow what your instincts tell you to do.”
As any serious wine drinker will tell you, the best wine is what tastes best for you. But pricing remains a perennial irritant.
Indian Wine Academy President Subhash Arora said five-star wine prices were “beyond my pocket.”
Raffaele Langella , Commercial Counsellor, Embassy of Italy in India, repeated that five-star hotels were not passing on the benefits of duty-free imports to their customers (or at least the benefits were “imperceptible”).
Saeed Shervani of the National Restaurant Association of India , who forcefully put across the view of his community, pointed out that the wine trade can rustle up volumes only if stand-alone restaurants started stocking wines seriously. “It can happen only when wine importers and restaurateurs get their act together to change the mindset of policy-makers,” he said, adding how a bar licence is just the beginning of a restaurateur's problems.
Langella said that the import duties on wine were being discussed bilaterally between India and Italy . The matter was raised by the visiting Italian Minister for Industry and Commerce in February and by the Italian counterpart of India 's Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar during his visit to Rome in November.
“The time is ripe for greater cooperation,” Langella hastened to add, sounding a note of optimism. He mentioned the immense possibilities being opened up by the Indo-Italian working group on food production, where wine will be an area of cooperation between the two countries.
The picture that emerged from the conference had many hues, but the predominant note was that of hope. “ India is a tough market. It needs a lot of patience and perseverance,” Arora said. “But it is a growing market with a fantastic future.”