A chemical engineer by education, Abhay’s career started in 1984 with Champagne India Ltd., a 100 per cent export-oriented unit making sparkling wines in India, in collaboration with Champagne Piper Heidsieck, France. He has come full circle since then, and today is the Managing Director of his own import company, Tetrad Global Beverages Pvt Ltd., with pan India distribution. Edited excerpts...
You started in the wine industry right out of engineering college, which is certainly not a conducive environment for cultivating a palate for refined beverages. How big of a cultural shock was the first year, as you were learning about the industry; and what lessons did you take away from that experience?
I had the requisite background knowledge in terms of the fermentation process, etc. But I had probably tasted good quality wine only once, before I decided to pursue winemaking as a career. That too was champagne, and my first impression was, that the drink was too acidic.
Wines available those days were mostly Golkonda and Bosca, which were too sweet and not palatable for me. So, the first three months were very critical for me to discover whether I can enjoy wines, and whether I am able to differentiate between them. Fortunately, I could and within three months of joining I was sent to France for my first training, which lasted for six months.
My first lesson was, that one should always be ready for challenges, keep an open mind and give in their 100 per cent once they take a decision.
What is your take on the evolving skirmish between ‘old world versus new world’ winemaking, especially considering the almost non-existent Indian identity in the mix? Does India even rank as a serious market in the global industry?
Old world wines are sold on the basis of the concept of “terroir”, which is to do with the region or appellation from where the wine comes from. Bordeaux is an appellation but the names of the grapes in the wine are not mentioned. While the new world wines, such as those from Australia or South Africa, are sold on the basis of varietals and names of quality wine making regions. The consumer found this aspect more appealing as the information is given upfront on the label, while one needs to be very knowledgeable to understand an old world wine label.
In India we do mention the varietals on the label, but we do not have an appellation or GI system which can bring in some credibility. Globally, there is some awareness about India now being a winemaking country, but we are still far from being accepted as a quality winemaking naion. Just one or two quality wine producers are not enough.
It won’t be a stretch to say that you have an affinity towards French wine. What is it about that particular region that attracts you?
I learned about winemaking in France, and have worked with some of the best winemakers while I was there, so it is safe to say that I truly do have an affinity towards French wines.
The French culture majorly revolves around food and wine, as every region has its own identity when it comes to their association.
Even the audience that drinks wine often, doesn’t always have a clear understanding of when they are paying for a quality product or just the label. What is your view on brands using this ignorance to overcharge customers? How do you decide if a product is worth the price?
It is a known fact that 95 per cent consumers drink the label and not the wine. Over the years, wine has developed a tag of being an ‘Aspirational Beverage’ with snobbery associated with it. Then there is always an element of demand and supply. This is true for every product in the luxury segment, and wine is no exception. Brands who use this ignorance to their advantage turn out to be more successful. From the consumer’s point of view, he has no other way but to learn from experience, or be guided by reviews and tasting notes of a more experienced connoisseur.
Do you think a Made-in-India wine could dominate the global market someday? How do your plans for a microbrewery fit into the picture?
In time to come, ‘Made-in-India Wines’ will definitely create more awareness and gain respect in the global market, although I do not believe they will ever dominate it. As I stated earlier, we do not have many exceptional quality vineyards. The cost of production is very high owing to expensive real estate and high-interest rates. Government laws aren’t very helpful either, and even good decisions are often negated by discriminatory policies.
Despite the large population, the educated wine-drinking crowd in India is very small and niche compared to people who just want to have a good time. Do you see that as a limitation when it comes to scaling a wine business, or is it an advantage to already have a targeted audience base? What challenges do you face when educating people about wine?
The biggest hindrance is the mindset that wines are for a more mature audience, it cannot be enjoyed like other beverages and requires an understanding of the drink for one to actually have a good time drinking it. It is sad that wine, for some reason has taken on that ethos. Whereas even the most expensive of scotch or whiskey does not suffer from these stiff uppity image issues.
Another challenge is high market entry costs, bad storage conditions, and alcohol being a grey zone in terms of advertising. Online sales are not allowed, despite the fact that every niche segment needs a digital presence. Wine works out to be an expensive proposition for this aspect, which is indeed a limitation for scaling up a business.