By Sourish Bhattacharyya
India's largest wine importer, Brindco's Aman Dhall, has just acquired one of Barossa Valley's top ten wineries and is on the way to financial closure of a deal with a Chilean company. His objective? To capitalize on his leadership position and leverage his vast network of international marketing contacts with companies like America's Cobrand Corporation to launch India's first transnational wine company.
Within this year, Brindco, and India, will get its first bottled-in-origin wine labels. For an Indian company, it's a creditable foray that promises to re-write the rules of the business. But for Dhall, who's seen his wine business grow 20 times since Brindco's International Division started its commercial operations in May 2001, it's just a case of staying “ahead of the curve”. Says the man who's as famous for his sharp Hugo Boss suits, Thomas Pink ties and Louis Vuitton bags as for his active portfolio of about 450 wine labels: “I have been there, I have done that, now I need to do something bigger.”
Of Dhall's three businesses, beer (Budweiser, Corona and Guinness) accounts for less than 10%, spirits (Diageo, Brown-Forman, Marie Brizard and Bacardi Martini) for 45% and wine for the balance 45%. “India may be a huge spirits-consuming country,” says Dhall, “but our wine and spirits portfolios are on a par in terms of sales turnover.”
Brindco's portfolio today has labels from Argentina, California, Chile, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand and Spain. His latest acquisition, which mirrors the young man's business foresight, is a Chinese wine from Grace Vineyards. Says Dhall: “It's the pouring wine at all Shangri-La hotels.” With Shangri-La (and Trader) having big plans for expansion in India, the latest addition to Dhall's portfolio makes much sense.
But why didn't Brindco, like Seagram Pernod-Ricard, decide produce its own-label wine in India? Dhall reasons that it takes “tremendous patience” to start afresh in a young wine market where there's no research taking place in viticulture and wine-making. “I would had to wait for a long time for my vines to mature and yield wine-worthy grapes,” says Dhall. “The question is: How fast will I recover the money? In the wine business, you have to wait for 10-15 years.”
There's a message in Dhall's analysis of the domestic business for potential producers casting thirsty glances at the wine grape glut in Nashik, Maharashtra, a region that shot into fame with Rajeev Samant's Sula Wines. Can young vines produce the quality of grapes that can make the difference between a good and a great wine?
Another reason for Dhall's bullishness is his belief that within four years, as a result of India's commitments to the World Trade Organisation, the oppressive tariff regime will become conducive to wine imports. “Today, a vin de pays whose CIF value is 2 euros is selling for Rs 800 (about 15 euros) in the Delhi retail market. Within four years, it will sell for Rs 450-500. We will get world-class products at value-for-money prices in the retail market. Where do Indian wines stand a chance in this market? They will have to either invest heavily in quality, or lower prices,” says Dhall.
But he's quick to add a note of caution. “The imported wine boom of the last three years, when the market grew by 30-35%, is no longer sustainable,” he says. “Now, realistically, we should be looking at a year-on-year growth of 20-25%. Where will the growth come from? Not from five-star hotels, because we're not adding that many in the near future. Not from independent restaurants, because not many serve quality wines. The on-trade business is flat, so the growth is going to come from the duty-paid market.”
The off-trade business, too, has its limitations. In Chennai, a buzzing metropolis and an emerging IT destination in the south, the state doesn't let imported wines to be sold in retail outlets. Another metro market, Kolkata, is so price sensitive that imported labels don't stand much of a chance in the current tariff environment. In Chandigarh, a major market for brown spirits with the potential of growing into a serious wine market, the cartel that controls the liquor vends is keeping wine prices artificially high. Like all things Indian, the wine market at times defies logic. Dhall may be bullish, but he's realistic enough to temper his excitement with a strong dose of business sense.