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Vinitaly Seminar : Insight by Indian Importer

At the recent edition of Vinitaly, Vikash Gupta, Director of Vinner Enoteca, was invited to speak at a conference where he shared his views as a wine importer and his vision about the future of the Indian wine market. Subhash Arora, who was present at the conference, reports.

A full house listened with rapt attention when Vikash addressed the audience, a majority of which consisted of producers who are exporting or planning to enter this potentially lucrative but paradoxical market.

An Idea is born

'Despite having gallons of wine, we could not find the right mix or the desired satisfaction level, both taste and price-wise,' said Vikash, while talking about how he got into the wine business.

While celebrating a re-union with two good friends Anand Khattar and Vipul Nanda, in 2006, having a wonderful time reminiscing about younger days and tasting different types of wines, they realised that there was a gap to be filled.

'An idea was born on that day, which resulted in our expedition into the world of wines.' The three started attending wine sessions, buying different labels and trying to understand why wine was becoming such a special drink in India.

They felt the existence of a vacuum which could be explored and exploited. A company was formed by them. Selecting the location for grape growing was not too difficult; with one of the partners with a farming background in the grape growing area of Nashik, the same was selected and the vineyard land was bought.

Available options

Explained Vikash, 'the business model that would work in India could be one of the following:

1. To develop an Indian label at our own vineyard. To the surprise of many people, there are a few successful labels which exist in India, i.e. Sula, Indage and Grover's.

2. Import wine in bulk from abroad, bottle it in India and create a new brand.

3. Import bottled wine. Under this we had a choice;

(a) To import an established label either by acquisition or by purchase of specific quantities at a time.

(b) Get imported bottled wine and create our own brand.'

Creating a Label

As the story unfolded when their wines were launched, they had decided 'to import bottled wine and work towards creating our own brand. This was because we felt that this strategy would give us flexibility to get the ideal product at the right price-point for our target consumers. The other reason for this option was to give the Indian Consumer an absolutely new and different product, which would not be affected by existing pr ejudices against prevalent brands,' said Vikash.

Opera is Born

The complexity of names and labels in Italy and France is not lost on many consumers who prefer to select a wine with a label simple enough to read or pronounce.

India is not different either. Therefore, they decided to go with the maxim, 'Simple is beautiful.'

Numerous names were considered and finally, 'Opera' was the chosen brand. 'It is simple, rolls off the tongue quite easily, gels well with our people and of course, it is easy to remember! The bottle label too has been kept clean and simple,' added Gupta.

Problems and Challenges

Doing business in wines in India is not easy and has a lot of administrative hurdles. Vikash talked about:

* Unstable and unfriendly import policy
* Poor warehousing and logistics facilities
* Ban on advertising of wine in any form
* Administratively, every state is a different country because of a federal character.
* Lack of wine culture and awareness.
* Many illogical, antiquated laws, like one cannot take the left-over bottle in a restaurant though the full bottle has been paid for.
* Categorisation by the government, of wine as an alcoholic drink like whisky and other hard liquors rather than part of food, as is prevalent in most other parts of the world.

“Those are only a few of the challenges that are being faced by the importers”, Vikash told the interested producers.

Indo-Italian Collaboration

Perhaps the first of its kind in the Indian wine industry, Vinner collaborated with Enoteca Regionale Emilia Romagna, as a 50-50 joint venture. It was a well thought out strategy, says Vikash. 'We felt there was mysticism of the unknown in Italian wines. The wonderful aroma and flavour of Italian wines is largely unknown to the Indian mind. This was an opportune moment for us to exploit.'

'An Indian cannot be an Italian. We, therefore, required an Italian association to exploit the intricacies of Italian wines. Our clear intent was to import select Italian wines, while also utilising Italian technical prowess and modern machinery, to produce superior quality wines at our own vineyards in Nashik. We have already planted the grapes at our property, and construction shall commence in a while.

‘The company has bought 17 acres of land in a beautiful spot in Nashik. A combination of mountains, water body and even a small temple nearby makes it an ideal spot where we plan to build a winery, along with a sample vineyard and a resort. The first planting was done a year and half ago. A kaleidoscope of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc, the first crop this year was sold off, as will be the next year's vintage', confides Gupta who believes it takes a minimum of 2 years before it is worthwhile to crush grapes for quality wine.

And Gupta, belonging to the second wave of wine producers, believes that quality is a must for survival and he has plans to grow, not just survive. The collaboration with Italians is a long term relationship. The existing partners are very excited about the possibility of collaborating in the Indian winery business - foreigners cannot buy vineyards but can own a winery.


The excitement was not this high in the beginning. 'Enoteca', based in Dozza near Bologna, in the manufacturing-strong, economically rich region of Italy, was undoubtedly interested in India. Says Gian Alfonso Roda, President of Enoteca Regionale Emilia Romagna, 'We are pleased to have joined hands with Vinner. They have a clear, long term vision and are extremely passionate about Italian wines, which is good for us too.' The company has a broader vision of the wine market in India and does not insist on selling wines only from Emilia-Romagna. 'We want them to concentrate on Italian wines that can be popularised for the Indian palate.'

'The best part of the partners is that they do not interfere in our working, so long as we focus on the Italian wines. 'The Opera' label jointly owned by the two can well be exploited in China or Russia in the future, though we jointly own the brand globally,' adds Vikash.

The confidence was built when Roda visited India and spent several days getting a feel of the Indian lifestyle, eating and drinking habits. He even went to Nashik to study the existing wine industry and knew this was the market to be in.

Wine Tourism and Events

Gupta, who has a strong desire to get into wine tourism through his 17-acre existing property which will be turned into a resort, is already negotiating for 80 acres in the neighbourhood to expand his crush capacity.

He understands that the wine market can truly be expanded through wine tourism and organising wine events. These events can be informational, presentations, awareness-oriented, on a website (under construction) and can be at the guest or staff level.

Second visit to Vinitaly

This was not the first visit to Vinitaly for Vikash. He came here last year where the Opera label was formally launched in the Emilia Romagna Padiglione (Pavillion). One could appreciate the seriousness with which he and his team did their homework, as all the wines selected for the Indian market were matched with both the Italian and Indian cuisine here.

Earlier, the company had imported samples of several labels and had them tested and tasted with various experts and hoteliers, including a group of consumer friends, at a guided tasting session conducted by the Indian Wine Academy. The invited guests acted as ’sommeliers’ and gave their individual opinion of all wines tasted.

Today, Vikash is happy because the four wines they had selected with the help of several guiding stars including these 'sommeliers' – Lambrusco Frizzante, Sangiovese, Pignoletto and Chianti Reserva 2001, Opera all, have caught the fancy of women, younger folks and many novices alike.

'India is a nation with more than half of the 1.1 billion being under 35. If we want to expand the market, we have to target the 25-40 age groups. The off-dry, picnicy Lambrusco caught the fancy of party loving women and men alike. It goes well with spicy Indian food and the gentle bubbles cleanse the palate as one sips along. Even vegetarians love the low alcohol 8% wine with low tannins.'

Vikash and Vinner Enoteca are serious about the wine business and optimistic about the future. They have set their goal rather high- to make Opera the number one brand in five years. Always keen to learn about wines, he took training for a day from Roberto Gardini, the 'Best Sommelier of Italy' in 1993. An entrepreneur to the core, he feels there is scope to expand the market in multiple ways.

Vinner Enoteca will be the wine company to watch during the next five years, not only for its wines - produced overseas and in India - but also the business plans he has made around many wine related opportunities.

Subhash Arora

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