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#chitchat

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Importer #chitchat

I lived and worked in India from 2008 to 2010. At the time I was the regional cellar master for Amanresorts looking after South-Asia, based in New Delhi.

Often when I told people I worked in India people look at me puzzled and asked – why? As though I had signed up for voluntary torture. Its fairly safe to say that the vast majority of people who have visited India either love it or hate it – there is no in between…no hmmm…yeah, it was ok. Most people return home saying their experience was either amazing or horrendous.

I’m happy to say that I fall into the former category and love it. There’s no denying – it’s not the easiest country to live in and being the wine industry I most certainly struggled with the bureaucracy and red tape, but to this day I feel as though every time I have the opportunity to talk about Inida and my time there it gives me a little bit of its energy back.

After subsequently living in a number of other countries since, I have still never had a more passionate team, eager to learn and take the next step in their careers. It was definitely the most rewarding country I have ever trained in and if the wine taxes were to be reduced and the right opportunity came along, I would gladly go back. Some of my most cherished memories and friendships were made in India, including those of the suppliers I worked with.

One of the importers I most enjoyed working with was Vishal Kadakia, the owner of Wine Park, based in Mumbai.

India can seem somewhat impenetrable to wine producers, so vast and complex, that it is almost impossible to know where to start. Hopefully through Vishal’s perspective below we will be able to shine some light on how the current industry stands.

Voyageur Selections: When did you start Wine Park and why?

Wine Park: In 2005 I returned back from a 8 year stint in Boston to join my fathers plastics manufacturing business in India. I had developed a liking for wines during my stay in USA thanks to my European friends! After a level 2 WSET program and an exposure to the fascinating world of wine, my liking of wine quickly turned to a passion. A trip to burgundy in 2003 was an eye opener. I had then decided to do something in wine when the right opportunity came along. During my trip to Rioja in 2006, one winery showed willingness to work with us to export wines to India. Hence Wine Park was born in December 2006 as a small Producer.

VS: Tell us a little bit about the Wine Park philosophy and some of the producers you currently represent.

WP: Wine Park’s philosophy is to work with small family driven wineries making hand crafted wines. We work with dynamic, passionate and like-minded owners who are as equally excited to work and grow in India as we are. However this philosophy has many challenges in India. Small producers who could be rockstars in the rest of the world are relatively unknown in India and a huge effort has to be put into market their wines. We have been able to find success with clients by continuing in this direction and celebrating producers who make beautiful wines. Inputs from several individuals in the trade including Kavita has helped us shape this philosophy over the years for which I am grateful. A few of the producers we work with are: Saint Cosme (Gigondas), Querciabella, Brancaia, Bibi Graetz (Tuscany), Vietti (Piedmont), Donnhoff (Nahe), St. Urbans-Hof (Mosel), Billecart Salmon (Champagne), Roda (Rioja), Boekenhoutskloof (Franschhoek), Saint Clair (Marlborough), Honig (California), Rolf Binder (Barossa), Dominio del Plata (Mendoza)

VS: What is your decision making process for adding new producers to your portfolio?

WP: The process is very personal. I need to first really enjoy the wines in order to be able to sell them in India. Comparisons of wines from same region are important. I also need to get along with the producer. The pricing, packaging and commerce plays a vital role. And the most important is the Indian market requirement for new wines and its potential to be successful or not in today’s scenario.

VS: What is selling well in India at the moment?

WP: New World wines from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa are selling well. Consumers here in India find wines with a fruit forward style easier to drink and often easier to understand with their more simple labels and easier on the wallet too! Italian wines are also doing well due India’s love affair with Italian restaurants (probably the most popular after Indian and Chinese cuisine)

VS: Do you notice trends based on style or are they more linked to price point?

WP: Both. Let me cite an example. People enjoy Malbec from Argentina, however if you bring a very top end expensive Malbec from any producer it is unlikely to sell. There has to be a value associated to it. Similarly people enjoy a Chianti Classico but will often choose a cheaper one (even a Chianti) on the menu.

VS: What is the current tax structure for importing wine into India?

WP: This is a complex question and needs to be addressed separately. Generally the import tax is 160% and then there are a host of other taxes, which are state dependent.

VS: Is it correct that tax rates vary for every state? What is the most difficult and the most simple state to sell wine?

WP: Yes. The easiest state to work is Maharashtra (Mumbai) and Karnataka (Bangalore). Most complex…there are many.

VS: Are Mumbai and Deli still the biggest markets? Is one more prominent than the other from a consumption perspective?

WP: Yes. Mumbai and Delhi are still the biggest.

VS: Are importers like Wine Park able to sell wine directly to private clients/consumers or does wine have to be sold through a restaurant/hotel/retail outlet in India?

Wine Park cannot sell wines to a client directly. It has to be routed through the channels mentioned – Restaurant/Hotels/Wine Shop

VS: Are the majority of well known restaurants still found in hotels or are there more stand alone restaurants being opened?

WP: Indian F&B scene is booming. There are many more exciting stand alone restaurants found today then a few years ago.

VS: Do you see retail sales increasing?

WP: Yes, retail sales are increasing, but more for Indian wines than imported wines as there is a huge price differential between both segments. However with more modern retail wine stores opening in India and good wines finding shelf space, the segment is growing steadily.

VS: Where do people mainly drink wine in India – or home or out socially?

Wine still is generally drunk socially. However there is a steady increase in home consumption of wines with better quality Indian wines becoming more available in the retail market.

VS: Do you see the strong whiskey presence lessening any time soon?

WP: No.

VS: When I was living in India, I believe the average wine consumption was 1 teaspoon per person per year, this obviously diluted by the huge population. Has the consumption increased over the last 5 years?

WP: Marginally again with more Indian wines being sold.

VS: What in your opinion needs to occur to open up India as a major player in the Asian wine market – as we see in Hong Kong and Japan etc?

WP: In random order 1) Reduction in Taxes 2) Wine Education 3) Hiring of Sommeliers in Major Hotel/Restaurant Chains

VS: What have been some of your highlights over the last decade working in the wine industry in India?

WP: Meeting and making some fabulous friends across the world. Drinking some beautiful wines. Traveling to amazing vineyards. And the journey of becoming a wine entrepreneur!

VS: What would be one piece of advice you would offer a wine maker interested in exporting his/her wine to India?

Find a right importer willing to work with you. Be an enthusiast of the Indian market: visit often and be willing to invest in the long term. Most importantly – be patient.

Thanks Vishal!

To learn more about Wine Park, visit their website http://www.thewinepark.com/

Cheers!

Kx

Importer #chitchat

I recently spent almost 2 months in Japan, whilst I was putting the wine program together for the new Amanresorts property in Tokyo.

I arrived to Japan knowing that it was regarded as the most sophisticated of all the major wine markets in Asia and expecting there to be a wide range of availability, but never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be the depth and diversity of wines I found there.

In Japan more than anywhere else in the world they are masters at specialising in the smallest detail – hence there are importers just focusing on the Rhône only, others just Oregon, many just natural wines. In Japan the natural wine movement has been embraced to a point of fanaticism. I think I could pretty safely say that Tokyo has more natural wine bars than anywhere else on the planet.

Anyway, moving on, in this series of blog posts our aim is to introduce you to the importers on the ground in various markets across the Asia-Pacific region.

To kick everything off we meet Carl Robinson, CEO of Wine Diamonds.

Whilst almost everything is available in Japan, it can be a very intimidating market for wine producers to navigate. Hence on Importer #chitchat we aim to give you some insight into the varying markets whilst highlighting the best in the business.

VS: Wine Diamonds is relatively new in the Japan wine scene – when did you start Wine Diamonds and why?

CR: We started Wine Diamonds in 2012.

I have also for the last 10 years been running a larger international importer called Jeroboam. Jeroboam has big international brands such as Pol Roger, Hugel, Perrin, Yalumba, Joseph Phelps etc. About five years ago we started to get excited about some of the newer, modern small producers that were coming out of Australia and New Zealand. Initially Jeroboam imported a few of these. However after a while (and a few late night drinks) we thought that a small dedicated company would be the best way to promote these wines. We put together a great team of partners and then started to build up the portfolio. Our team was Ned Goodwin MW and myself for sourcing, marketing and educating. Ken-Ichi Ohashi, for wholesaling to his local network of Japanese professionals, and Yoshiaki Washitani owner of Wassy’s, Japans leading online retailer of new world wines.

VS: Tell us about the people behind Wine Diamonds…

CR: I have been in Japan for 18 years. I started as a somm then moved into consulting. I was doing the usual things, building wine lists, teaching, writing for several magazines and helping wineries get distribution in Japan. When the Perrin, Hugel and Pol Roger families started Jeroboam they hired me to put together their new world portfolio. It was a big success and we became close. Eventually I was able to take over the running of the business.

Ned was another long-term wine resident of Japan and we had been mates for several years. Ned too was consulting, writing and teaching for many prestigious companies both in Japan and internationally. We had often talked about doing something fun with the small artisan producers we loved, so we got together with Ken and Yoshiaki and started.

Ken is a wine distributor, educator, sake guru who consults (amongst other things) for the Somersault group of 20+ local distributors throughout Japan. These distributors formed the base of our early distribution. Yoshiaki Washitani is Japans most respected and important on-line retainer of New World wines. He has two physical shops in Osaka and a large team for the online business. Wassy’s is the only place where all our selections are available to consumers.

Once we had our shareholder group we needed a dynamic and energetic manager to run and develop the business. After much begging from Ned and myself we were able to persuade Yutaka Ozaki to leave his dream job as brand ambassador for Moet Hennessy to come and join us. Yutaka had previously worked with Ned at Global Dining, one of Ned’s large consulting clients. Yutaka’s energy has really seen the business take off.

VS: Can you give us a run down on your decision making process for choosing producers for the WD portfolio.

CR: We chose together and all agree on what we add to the portfolio. If anything Ned takes care more of the sourcing in Australian and myself for NZ. However after we find stuff we all sit down to taste and discuss. Our criteria is simple – they have to be delicious, and made by people we want to hang out with.

VS: When I was there I was surprised by how little Australian and New Zealand wine there was listed in the majority of the five star hotels and Michelin starred restaurants. They seem to focus on California of all of the new world regions. Where has that trend stemmed from in Japan? As in the rest of Asia it is generally the opposite with Australia and New Zealand dominating new world selections. Is it difficult to sell Australian and New Zealand wine in Japan?

France and Italy still rule here. Basically because wine has traditionally been part of the restaurant experience. There are 4500 Italian restaurants in Tokyo alone and more than 3000 French. Wine is imported distributed and drunk primarily in the on trade at these outlets.

With regard to the new world there has been limited demand (there are probably only 5 Australian and 2 NZ restaurants in Tokyo) so NZ and Aus traditionally tended to get token places on the large hotel lists and international restaurants. The US prevalence stems from trade ties and the post war fascination with all things USA that still prevails. In the 80’s when Japan was exporting millions of container loads of goods to the USA the Americans demanded they put something in the containers coming back. Hence companies like Honda motors were amongst the first Californian Wine importers. Now pretty much every Californian Wine brand is here.

With regard to selling Australia and New Zealand, I think the Wine Diamonds customer is attracted to our selections for the taste and style and not because they are Australian / New Zealand wines. We spend a lot more time talking about the people who make our wines rather than where they are from.

There is a growing movement on smaller, more casual restaurants, often in the grimier parts of the large cities, opening with funkier food and wine offerings. These are the outlets that have really taken to the Wine Diamonds portfolio.

VS: What are your thoughts on the natural wine movement in Japan, is it just a passing trend or here to stay?

CR: It’s here to stay. Post Fukushima Japanese consumers are very concerned about what they eat and drink. Integrity in food and beverage packaging has become a big deal. The idea of non-manipulated wines hits this nerve perfectly, and I am sure it will continue.

There are many dozens of restaurants that only serve natural wines now. They continue to open like crazy.

VS: Whilst I was there, I noticed that Lucy Margaux, one of the WD producers, has quickly become almost a cult wine – it is possible to explain why Anton’s wines have been so successful?

CR: Japanese love the story behind the wines they drink. Anton has a great story. With any movement (such as Natural wines) there are those who do it for marketing and those that walk the walk. Anton, making his own wine, cider, salt, vegetables, beer, dry goods etc. is the real deal and the Japanese have been quick to recognize that. The labels also hark to Japan with the Manga designs created by his daughter Lucy. It’s a perfect match.

VS: Are you looking to expand the Wine Diamonds portfolio? If so, what are you looking for?

CR: Yes, we are keen to keep our portfolio fresh and relevant. Many of our producers are very small and cannot give us more wine. Hence we need to keep finding more like-minded producers that add value to the portfolio. We are looking for anything that excites us.

VS: Whilst Tokyo is quite a stable market, it is still susceptible to trends. What do think will be the next big trend?

CR: I think we are still at the beginning of the Natural wine trend and this has a long way to run. For wines I think that Japanese consumers will continue to demand wines of honesty and integrity. The industrial wines will continue to slow down here whist artisans will do well. Oh, and the other BIG trend will be the prevalence of Japanese wines as an important part of restaurant wine lists. The local industry is on fire!

VS: Last but not least, what’s your favourite thing about being a part of the Japanese wine market?

CR: Japan is a great place to be in the wine business.

If you are passionate about what you do and are willing to invest the time and effort then you can build a good following and a successful business. It always takes longer than you think, but if you stick at it Japan is immensely rewarding. The foods is not bad either!

Thanks Carl!

To visit the Wine Diamonds website got to http://www.winediamonds.co.jp